Six strategies to help you cope if deadlines make you break out in a cold sweat.
There are few worse feelings than knowing that you’re nowhere near on top of an impending work deadline. It’s that old Sunday-night-homework sensation with the volume turned up: a panicky fluttering heartbeat, a sinking feeling of dread in your stomach, and the sense that you are standing at the bottom of a cloud-capped mountain wearing flip-flops.
Inevitably, you end up running through all the possible outcomes if – as you strongly suspect will be the case – you don’t manage to get everything done on time. You’ll definitely get in trouble with your boss; hey, you might even get fired! And from that hypothetical scenario, the terrible possibilities are virtually limitless.
While you might feel like the only person who really struggles with deadlines in adulthood, that’s certainly not the case. According to a recent survey on workplace stress by jobs site CareerCast, most people (38%) see deadlines as their biggest source of professional anxiety. An earlier edition of CareerCast’s Stressful Jobs Reader Survey found that more people were afraid of deadlines than they were of actually dying at work.
But why are deadlines so stressful? It’s worth noting, of course, that some people don’t find them anxiety-inducing at all (you know the type – they like to talk about how they “thrive under pressure”). However, there are psychological and physiological reasons that the thought of deadlines makes so many of us break out into a cold sweat. Researchers have long theorised that people with classic ‘Type A’ personality traits – such as being ambitious, rigidly organised, sensitive and impatient – also tend to find time management more anxiety-inducing.
On the flipside, people who generally see themselves as more laidback and easygoing can also have a problem with deadlines. They might be less organised, or have an unrealistically optimistic idea of how much they’re able to achieve within a certain timeframe. Many of us are also prone to procrastination – a phenomenon that can get mightily tangled up with other issues such as anxiety, indecisiveness or fear of failure.
And when we start to feel stressed to the point of being totally overwhelmed by an impending deadline, it has a major effect on our bodies. Unable to distinguish very well between emotional and physical threats, our nervous system kicks into fight or flight mode, releasing a flood of stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. Sometimes, this can have the very unhelpful knock-on effect of effectively scrambling our brains: our thoughts race and we find it harder to concentrate and remember things. Not the ideal scenario for finishing off an important presentation or report.
So how can we take some of the horror out of deadlines? Stylist spoke to time management coach and productivity coach Clare Evans to get her expert advice.
Be clear on expectations before you begin
There’s nothing worse than realising, the day before a major deadline, that a task is actually much bigger and more complicated than you’d assumed. So before you embark on a project, make sure you’re crystal clear on what’s being asked of you.
“It’s about clarifying expectations up front,” says Evans. If possible, ask any questions about a project before committing to a firm deadline. If you’ve already agreed to a project, look into the details as soon as possible to make sure you know what you’re up against.
Break a project down to its smallest steps
After you’ve been assigned a task, give yourself a set amount of time (could be 10 minutes, could be half an hour) to divide the project into sensible sections. Ask yourself: what exactly do I need to tick off my list in order to meet this deadline? Do I need to create a template for a presentation? Do I need to do any research? Do I need to get information from other people?
Once you’ve worked out exactly what it is you need to do, write yourself a schedule. Note down each of the individual steps, as well as how much time you expect each task to take. This will give you a clearer sense of your priorities and make you feel calmer and more prepared.
People often experience deadline anxiety because they don’t plot out their steps in advance and end up trying to do too much at once, says Evans. “Rather than saying I need to spend half a day producing a report, give yourself 30 minutes to lay out the outline and the structure, and then spend another 30 minutes at a later time working on the next bit.”
Set yourself earlier task completion times
Once you’ve worked out what smaller steps are involved in achieving a larger goal, assign yourself a series of mini deadlines. Ideally, to avoid a stressful last-minute scramble, none of these earlier task completion times should be set for the same day as the final deadline.
If you struggle with deadline anxiety, it’s also worth moving the final deadline forward in your mind by a few days. You know how you might tell a chronically late friend to meet you 15 minutes earlier than you actually need, so that they end up arriving on time? Try using a similar trick on yourself.
“I often recommend building in what I call ‘slack time,’” says Evans. “If you need something done by Friday, aim to complete it by Wednesday. That way, if things take a little longer or the goalposts move – which invariably happens – you’ve still got enough time to get everything done.”
This strategy is also useful if you’re working on a project with other people and need them to submit their contributions by a certain time. “Tell them you need the information a week before you actually do, or a couple of days earlier, so them being late doesn’t result in you missing your deadline,” says Evans.
Avoid saying ‘yes’ to everything
Evans says that people who struggle with deadlines also tend to be people who “say ‘yes’ too much”. There are many reasons why they might find themselves agreeing to an insurmountable amount of work: because they like being helpful, they feel guilty about saying no, or they’re not organised enough to remember what they’ve already got on their plate.
“Somebody asks those people to do something, they say ‘yes’, and then they realise that they’ve already got too much to do,” she explains. “So they’re actually creating the overwhelm themselves. It’s important to recognise when you’re overloaded.”
If someone springs a tight deadline on you at the last minute, Evans recommends taking a moment to think about whether you can realistically fit it into your schedule. If it’s completely unfeasible, it’s better to be honest about that from the off, rather than promising something you suspect you might not be able to achieve. You may also be allowed to delegate tasks to meet a bigger deadline: don’t assume that you have to shoulder everything alone.
Don’t be afraid to renegotiate
Of course, you should always try to meet deadlines where possible. But if you’ve been set a timeframe that is totally unrealistic – or if something comes up while you’re working on a project that makes things more complex than anticipated – you are entitled to ask for an extension.
“A lot of people don’t necessarily think about renegotiating,” says Evans. “If someone sets them a deadline, they think it’s set in stone. But sometimes, you’ll do everything you can to meet a deadline – pull an all-nighter, or work over the weekend – and then you’ll give it to the relevant person on Monday morning and it will sit on their desk for a week.”
If you could really do with more time on a project, ask for it. “Go back to the person and say, ‘Is it OK if I give you this on Tuesday instead of Friday?’” says Evans. “The worst that can happen is that they say no.”
Explain clearly and calmly why you won’t be able to meet the original date – and make the ask as early as possible. “If you can’t get something done by Friday, it helps if you’re not leaving it until Thursday to ask for an extension,” Evans says.
Free yourself from the curse of perfectionism
‘Done is better than perfect’ is a cliché – but like many clichés, it’s also true. Evans says that people who procrastinate or panic about deadlines often tend to hold themselves to have a “fear of failure or fear of negative outcomes”. They never feel like they have enough time to do something to the high standard they would like – cue deadline anxiety.
If you find yourself panicking that your work isn’t any good, Evans recommends asking yourself: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’
“People can get bogged down with imagining somebody else’s thoughts or expectations, or worrying about what the response to their work might be – even if those things are completely unlikely,” she says. “If you ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen, you’ll probably realise that that outcome is very unlikely.”
However, if you suffer from anxiety and tend to believe that the worst possible outcome of a situation will definitely happen, you may be experiencing catastrophic thinking. You can find advice on how to manage this here.
Making sure you know exactly what’s needed of you before you begin will also help you push past unhelpful perfectionism. “Establish what will be considered ‘good enough’,” Evans says. “Your expectations of yourself may be much higher than what’s actually required of you.”
Images: Getty Images / Lead image design: Alessia Armenise