We’ve all been there: massive deadline looming over us and too many tasks to complete before the big day.
It’s a terrifying feeling and it’s all too common. But there are some simple steps you can take to manage your stress and make a seemingly impossible deadline feel much more feasible.
Prioritize and Create a Clear Zone
Let’s assume your deadline is your top priority. Now, it’s time to eliminate everything else that’s crowding your mind and your schedule. The first place to clean out the clutter is with your email inbox. As you work on the project, close your email and shut off push notifications. Schedule breaks to check your email at reasonable intervals—every hour is best so as to not interrupt your flow.
The trouble with emails is that they generally feel more urgent than they are. With ten emails staring back at you from your computer screen, you’re not going to rest until you’ve handled each one. Then, the cycle begins anew as more emails flood in. Break the cycle. Work in an email-free zone.
When you do decide to check your email, make sure you’re clear in your mind as to what is priority and what is not. An old friend reaching out to reconnect? That can wait until you’re ready. A project from last year that a coworker has new questions about? That too can take a backseat. Keep in mind that just because someone sent you an email today does not meant that that person expects—or needs—a response immediately.
Eliminate Frivolous Time-Tasks
Creating the mental space to handle a looming deadline can be challenging, but understanding the most common distractions in your own life can help you begin to quiet all the noise. If your email inbox is not the biggest time-suck of your day but there is another task you dread and find excessively time consuming, find a way to work around it.
Take President Obama or even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Both found the task of choosing clothing daily to be a waste of time and decision-making energy. So, to solve the problem, both wear their own form of a uniform. The President will wear either a grey or a blue suit and nothing else to cut down on the mental clutter of choosing his daily outfit. For Mark Zuckerberg, his uniform is grey t-shirt and, famously, a hoodie.
Not all time-tasks will be the same for everyone. Make your own list of priorities and find the things that can be eliminated from your daily to-do list. You might schedule a lunch delivery the night before you go to work, block off your calendar from meeting invites in advance, or remove or reschedule lower priority meetings from your calendar.
Break it up
Having a major, final deadline can seem overwhelming. When you examine the list of tasks to be completed by that date, you may feel as if you’ll never finish everything in time. While it may seem counterintuitive to handle the stress of one deadline, creating multiple, smaller deadlines can help you get a handle on the task.
Build yourself a road map that includes several due dates and their respective deliverables along the way to your big, final deadline. This exercise will help you prioritize when certain tasks need to be completed and when others can wait. As you progress, you’ll feel heartened as you’re able to check your smaller deadlines off of your to-do list. Triggering these small moments of accomplishment can help motivate and propel you to continue forging ahead.
If you’re a lifelong procrastinator, take heart: starting late might not be the worst thing in the world. Wharton Business School professor of management and psychology Adam Grant writes that procrastination can breed creativity. By delaying completion of a project, he found that more original concepts rose to the forefront. By jumping into a task and trying to complete it as soon as possible, we may be violating certain thought processes that can take time to develop and take shape.
People who are more focused on completing a task than the work itself might not find the mental space to imagine creative solutions and new ideas. By giving oneself the time to step away from the project, you may come back to it finding that your mind had been—without your even knowing it—working on it all along.
Of course, there is a limit to how much procrastination can be constructive. To prevent yourself from running out of time in the effort to think more creatively, set a deadline on your window of procrastination. Leave yourself time to let your mind wander but make sure you have a stop date at which point you’ll need to buckle down and get to work.