Gordon Wainwright is an independent management training consultant. He has written several books on management communication skills, including 'Read Faster, Recall More' (also published by How To Books) and runs courses for a wide range of organisations, including multinationals and government departments.
Originally, a deadline was ‘a line drawn in a military prison, by going beyond which a prisoner makes himself liable to be shot instantly’ (Chambers Etymological English Dictionary). Nowadays it has a less draconian connotation and means simply a closing date or the point in time by which an activity has to be completed. As such it has considerable value.
Time limits have a similar function, but, whereas deadlines deal only with the ending of a process, time limits usually specify either starting and finishing times or the total amount of time available. In this latter respect they are similar to time frames or time slots, which really deal with the time between limits.
Time frames are usually set within a general context involving several time frames for complementary, or even competing, activities. For instance, a morning’s sequence of activities – getting up, having breakfast, travelling to work, dealing with correspondence, attending a meeting, and so on – requires a series of time frames, one for each activity. If all goes well, they will be complementary and build into a picture of a reasonably trouble-free morning. But if the journey to work takes longer than anticipated or a meeting overruns, they may overlap and will therefore be competing with each other for the same period of time.
Whether you use deadlines, time limits or time frames to assist you in managing your time is, to a large extent, a matter of personal preference. Some people prefer to rely solely on a finishing time, some on a set amount of time and others on a planned sequencing of activities. There is no clear evidence favouring one technique. You must pick the one that works best for you. It may be worth trying out them all before you make your final choice. You may even decide to use all three on different occasions as determined by the particular needs of the situation.
Deadlines (or time limits or time frames) should be written down and kept in clear view. In this way, you have no excuse to offer yourself (though you may, if necessary, offer it to others, but that is another matter – just so long as you do not delude yourself) about not realising how quickly time has passed if you cannot complete the task on time. The act of writing down the deadline commits you to it. The fact of keeping it in clear view on your desk, on a notice board or inside a frequently used diary or electronic personal data assistant (PDA) is a continual reminder both of its existence and your commitment to yourself to meet it. It thus makes it much more likely that you will, in fact, achieve it.
For many activities of long duration, a deadline may be far in the future. A report may take weeks to write, a project may take months to finish, and even a simple house repair may take several weekends. In such cases, it is desirable to break the task down into stages and to set a deadline for each one. If you don’t meet a sub-deadline, it shouldn’t matter too much. It merely tells you that you have a little extra work to do on the next occasion. And at least it will prevent you from getting close to the deadline and then suddenly realising that you have fallen so far behind in your work that you cannot possibly hope to catch up.
Many activities cannot easily be speeded up, in terms of faster movements on your part, so it is essential to explore other ways of increasing personal efficiency. And you have to spend less time doing some things if you are to make more time for others.
In setting deadlines, you need to set them a little tighter than seems to be required, in case any unforeseen delays arise. Much of the time everything will proceed smoothly and you will find you have finished ahead of the real schedule. This is all to the good because it gives you extra time for checking over what you have done if this proves to be necessary. It is always better to finish ahead of time anyway because this helps you to avoid the intense psychological pressure which can build up if you get into the habit of running too close to deadlines. Finishing ‘early’ (that is, before things really must be done) helps you to remain relaxed and builds self-confidence in your own ability to cope.
You also need to avoid the greatest danger with deadlines, and that is that you may postpone an action until the last possible minute and then not be able to complete it in time. And there are other dangers. You may be over-optimistic about your own abilities and about how much can be done in a certain time. So be sure your deadlines are realistic. Or you may fail to provide for unexpected delays. By definition, it is impossible to expect the unexpected. But at least you can set a deadline which allows for some slack time, for that can always be useful.
Without deadlines, time can more easily be wasted. It is always easy to spend more time than intended over a business lunch, over telephone calls, in daydreaming and staring out of the window, or in trying to do several things at once. You can then find that you are thrashing around in total confusion and really achieving very little. You have become a headless chicken again. Greater activity is no reliable indication that useful work is being done.
Deadlines also help to overcome procrastination. There are always many plausible reasons for putting tasks, especially unpleasant or unrewarding ones, off until tomorrow. Time creation does not recognise the all-too-common philosophy that you should never put off until tomorrow what can be safely left until the day after. It is more concerned with an ‘action this day’ approach.
The main advantage of deadlines, however, is that they enable you to plan sensibly ahead. An orderly arrangement of activities with realistic deadlines is a very effective method on its own of ensuring greater efficiency. Allied to all the other time creation techniques and welded into an integrated approach, it begins to build into a formidable and effective approach to the better management of time both at work and in leisure.
On some occasions, you may find it useful to use a little time to check on the passage of time in activities, especially if you have identified several stages in a task and wish to check on how much time each stage is taking. You will certainly find it useful to keep a record of your progress in using deadlines, particularly of those occasions on which you fail to meet them. This will provide you with useful feedback, which will enable you to improve performance and increase your chances of becoming a laidback bear.