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How to Better Manage Self-Imposed Deadlines

Stay on schedule with advice from Duke experts and colleagues

A clock with some dominoes.

In her role as a biostatistician for Duke Clinical Research Institute, Nicole Solomon sifts through massive amounts of data, unearthing trends and looking for clues that can help sharpen and guide researchers’ questions.

Nicole SolomonWith projects often taking several weeks to come together, and usually with multiple projects on her plate at one time, Solomon breaks down large endeavors into smaller tasks, each with a deadline she sets for herself. But she admits, those deadlines can be hard to keep.

“I’ll set a goal for myself, like ‘I think I can get this done by a certain point,’” said Solomon, who joined Duke last spring. “But then it may turn out that the data was especially messy, or another project turns out to violate some assumptions for a specific statistical detail and we have to work around those. So things don’t always go as planned.”

Unlike deadlines set by others, self-imposed deadlines can be harder to stick to. Jamie Foehl, senior behavioral researcher at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, points out that we can set deadlines for ourselves with every intention to meet them, but when challenges arise, we don’t treat those deadlines the same as others.

“We’re more committed to do things for others than we are to ourselves,” Foehl said. “If I miss my own deadline it may not impact anybody else, except my future self. That’s very different than if I miss a deadline from somebody else. I’ll put those deadlines ahead of mine because I’d rather face my own wrath than face somebody else’s.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are a few things you can do to make self-imposed deadlines easier to stick to.

Give Yourself Enough Time

Clocks and Arrows

As part of the workflow for Solomon’s DCRI team, members will often estimate how much time they’ll need for a specific project and let their teammates know. That way, when new tasks need to be handled, the team knows which members can take them on.

This requires Solomon to know how long it will realistically take her to complete a project.

In the Managing Multiple Priorities course she teaches for Duke Learning & Organizational Development, Joy Birmingham points out that the ability to estimate how long you’ll need for a task is an essential – albeit difficult to master – skill for effective time management. She said that we often think something will be much quicker to do than it actually is. Most people fail to take into account interruptions, distractions or our own slow pace.

That’s why she said, when setting your own deadlines, be realistic and factor in time for unforeseen hurdles. Giving yourself more time that you think you need can help you stay on schedule.

“If you think something might realistically take you an hour to do, double it,” said Birmingham, assistant director of L&OD, a division of Duke Human Resources. “Sometimes doubling the time you give yourself to do something will leave you with more time than you need. But it may also ensure you have enough.”

Say it Out Loud

Both Foehl and Birmingham agree that the most helpful thing you can do to stick to your own deadline is to simply tell someone else about it. By informing others, even those without a stake in the deadline, makes you accountable to your word and the deadline more concrete.

Jamie Foehl“The social contract is just as powerful, if not more powerful, than a binding deadline,” Foehl said.

Some of the projects that Solomon works on – which often have several variables that can change workflows – don’t have firm deadlines. But Solomon feels better when she informs colleagues of when she intends to have something done, thus giving her schedule some self-imposed structure and accountability.

“That leads me to go back into my own tasks and break them down and say this has to be done by this day, this has to be done by that day,” Solomon said. “I want to live with integrity and work with integrity and live up to what I say.”

If You Miss It…A board filled with post-it notes.

Even the best self-imposed deadlines can get missed. But what happens once you realize you won’t meet one is crucial.

Foehl said that it’s important to give yourself contingency plans. She said that it’s common for people to miss a self-imposed deadline or personal goal and then lose focus.

“There’s something called the ‘What the Heck Effect,’” Foehl said. “It’s what happens when you miss a deadline, and it’s like, once you blow it, you blow it, so you quit trying.”

That’s why, when you think you might miss a deadline for a task, you should quickly set another. By giving yourself a contingency plan, she said, you can stay somewhat on schedule and avoid the inclination to give up.

Solomon, the biostatistician for Duke Clinical Research Institute, said there’s another tactic she uses when something takes longer than expected. Upon completing a task that didn’t meet a personal deadline, she’ll often take a moment consider why she needed more time and see if that extra time resulted in better work.

“There can be a reason why a step might have taken longer than I preferred,” said Solomon, who stressed the importance of having self-compassion when it comes to personal deadlines. “Am I putting out a better product and doing higher quality work? Sometimes a little flexibility can make a better final product.”

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