These are the habits that keep me cool in the heat of constant deadlines
Deadlines can be a major stressor in our lives — whether it’s a school assignment, a project at work, or a bill to pay, we have never-ending to-do lists with ever-tightening deadlines.
Even the word ‘deadline’ itself has an anxiety-inducing (and controversial) history. A “dead line” was a line drawn within or around a prison that if a prisoner passed, they were at risk of being shot. Passing a deadline literally meant doing something deadly.
Today, we are lucky that deadlines refer to something entirely different and although missing a deadline is not often thought of as life-threatening, we can’t deny the anxiety they induce in our everyday lives.
As an accountant, this is something I deal with on a daily basis. Deadline anxiety is something I’ve learned to manage over time, and working in a field with constant deadlines has helped me find ways of combatting the anxiety that comes with it.
Here are my top 5 (tried and tested) ways to reduce deadline anxiety.
I remember in an interview being asked if I had ever missed a deadline. My response was honest — that in my university days I would pull all-nighters occasionally if needed to submit an assignment on time — but I could proudly say I was always good at meeting deadlines (that’s what he wants to hear, right?).
He was a project manager, so what he really wanted to hear was how I would set my own personal milestones/deadlines, and that I may miss those, but never the “official” deadline. Although I’m sure I had created my own deadlines before, I never thought about it as a deadline strategy.
Without knowledge of project management, I was curious how often someone would make strict deadlines for themselves that differ from the actual “official” deadline? It’s like setting your clock 10 minutes fast — does it really get you out the door any sooner?
I learned lots of practical tools from him, but it’s truly this interview question and response that has stuck with me ever since.
Build checkpoints/milestones/deadlines within your “official” deadline timeframe. This is a way of taking bite-sized chunks out of a larger, more intimidating deadline and making it more manageable for yourself. If you miss a milestone, it’s not the end of the world, and you can always readjust the plan accordingly.
Free up some cognitive resources by getting the list of things you need to do from inside your noggin and out onto paper.
Keeping a running to-do list in your head takes up precious cognitive resources, which can make you more anxious and unable to focus on the task at hand due to the sheer volume of other priorities filling up your brain space.
For many of us, it’s not unusual to have multiple (often competing) priorities. One second you’re working on an important project, then suddenly you get an e-mail from your boss, and there’s a new, more important item that needs completion. This ever-revolving door of priorities often results in anxiety and stress, particularly if the deadlines of your original priorities aren’t adjusted to compensate.
According to a study done by E. J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister, “a plan reduces the amount of thoughts and attention that are typically recruited in service of an unfulfilled goal. Thoughts of an incomplete goal will not interfere with current concerns so long as a plan has been made to see the goal through later on”.
In other words, take back some of your power by writing down what you need to do. Not only does it provide you with more mental capacity for the task at hand, but it frees up mental space for the next.
Dual-purpose: A to-do list (within a notebook) can also serve as a reminder of what you have accomplished over the past week/month/year. It’s a great tool to use for performance reviews, promotion requests, or even when updating your resume as you can refer back to some of the projects or tasks you have completed (that you likely have forgotten about).
Study after study has shown that going for a walk when you’re pondering a decision or working on something big can give you the mental clarity and space that you need to finish off an important task. Sometimes deadlines are just so tight that we feel the need to work 24/7 at lightning speed, but it’s important to step away from your work and come back to it with a clear mind so you can think up creative solutions and see where you’ve potentially made mistakes.
According to a study at Stanford, “walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity”. They even found that in one of their experiments, “100% of those who walked outside generated at least one novel high-quality analogy compared with 50% of those seated inside”.
Sometimes it’s not realistic to get outside for a walk, but it’s worth building time into your workday to take these brief moments to get moving and think through your project — heck, you may even come up with more creative solutions to your problems.
Take it a step further: If you’re looking to gather ideas, or simply run an idea past someone, see if they would take a walking meeting with you. Get out of your workspace, and kill two birds with one stone by chatting about what you’re working on, and throw some ideas around. You could just come back to your project with some new insights or ideas that could get you through to the finish line.
Asking for help comes in many different shapes and forms. Sometimes it means delegating or passing work off to others, and other times it may just be asking someone to look over your finished report. Either way, collaboration with your counterparts can save you from that unnecessary pressure you place on yourself to do it all on your own.
If you can share your work with others, having a clean set of eyes review your work could help you see holes in your logic or assumptions, they can point out things that might not be clear (can be simplified or explained further) or if it’s a technical task, they could find errors in your calculations. The benefits of working collaboratively on tasks and projects are endless — and isn’t it the whole reason we have teams in the first place?
Lay out your expectations: Collaboration can be a major benefit, but be sure to lay out your expectations ahead of time. Clearly articulate what it is that you want them to review, the kind of feedback you’re looking for (do you want them to check your Excel sheet for formula errors, or do you want them to judge your slide deck for conciseness?), and when you need the review completed (a “nested deadline” — deadline within a deadline). Setting clear guidelines for your review will ensure the other person is not wasting their time going over something you don’t want or need them to go over.
If anxiety has taken over your day-to-day work, and you’re feeling unproductive, stressed, worried, burnt-out, like you took on more than you can chew, or a mix of all of the above: ask for a deadline extension. Sometimes this is not possible, but more often than not, it is, and the sooner you realize you need an extension, the better.
If you have a reputation for delivering projects/assignments on time, then asking for an extension on rare occasions is not the end of the world, especially if it does not result in financial repercussions (i.e. interest charges) or a negative domino effect on other projects.
Life will inevitably get ahead of us sometimes — it happens to everyone.
The bottom line is: before you even accept a project, make sure you have enough time available for you to realistically complete it on time. A good way to start is to ask when a particular piece of work is needed and build back from there, with your own milestones mapped out along the way.