How to Stick to Personal Deadlines


There's a big difference between a deadline that your boss sets for you and one you set for yourself. Even if there's a little grumbling along the way, you'll work hard to meet a deadline that a manager imposes because you know that there are serious consequences to not getting your work done. But if you've set a personal deadline, it can be harder to stick to — there's just not the same type of consequence in place. You aren't going to fire yourself, so you can feel like pushing a deadline back a little won't be a problem. (See also: Tools to Get Organized, Family Style)

But there are ways to make sure that you can stay on track to meet your personal deadlines. The process isn't always easy, but if the deadline you're shooting for is an important one, working to keep it makes sense.

Create an External Deadline

If we work better when someone else assigns our deadlines, why not find a way to make your personal deadlines external? Something as simple as tying your personal deadline to something bigger — something that you have to do for someone else — can help dramatically. For instance, if you're trying to get some repairs done around the house, you might consider inviting someone over for dinner the day after the deadline you've set. That way, since you don't want visitors to see problems in your house, you've got a hard deadline to complete those repairs.

The same approach works for a variety of different tasks: planning to submit a project to a contest can help you focus on a deadline, as can scheduling a review or a critique with a professional. External deadlines are even more effective if you can connect them to consequences, like losing a fee paid for a critique if you aren't ready for it by the deadline.

Arrange for Accountability

We're all reluctant to look bad in front of other people. That unwillingness to embarrass ourselves makes it easier to arrange for accountability. Just mentioning a project to someone who is likely to ask about it in the future means that you have an incentive to keep working on it, so that you don't have to tell that individual that you forgot all about your grand plan.

You can also arrange for more formal accountability. Tell a friend or a family member that you want them to keep asking you about your progress. Ask for a little nagging so that you keep moving towards that deadline. Don't ask anyone you know who will give you slack, though. You may find yourself pushing back a deadline with his or her permission.

Break Down That Deadline

Setting an ambitious goal is a good idea, but if you don't know how you're going to get there, your deadline may roll around with nothing accomplished.

Break down the work you need to do into the smallest pieces you can. If a step will only take you a few minutes to complete, it's a lot harder to procrastinate. It may even take you more time to figure out a way to procrastinate than to cross that first step off your list.

You can tie smaller steps into external deadlines or accountability of their own. If you're working on a project for the long haul, creating some small wins and met deadlines can help you build up some momentum.

Create a Habit of Work

Unless you're regularly tackling big projects of your own, it's likely that pursuing a particular deadline isn't part of your daily routine. If you can make a habit of doing a little work towards a particular goal or deadline every day, it's going to be a lot easier to accomplish it.

Sure, you may still need to carve some big blocks of time out of your schedule to do some of the work, but having the habit means that you're thinking about the next step you need to complete each day.

Work on One Deadline at a Time

All of these approaches can help you make good progress towards any deadline you set yourself. But don't push too hard. Trying to meet big, overlapping deadlines can mean that you're taking on too much to realistically accomplish. Make sure your deadlines are realistic.

How do you stick to personal deadlines?

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Guest's picture

...And forgive yourself if something comes up and you miss a part of your deadline! Too many people give up when things start to go badly.

Guest's picture

Personal deadlines are, well, tricky. If you set artificial deadlines (which are personal deadlines), and you know deep down they aren't real deadlines (ones where your boss will slap your hand if you don't get something done on time), then you are likely to procrastinate.

I think you're on to something when you talk about creating a habit of work. Habits override our thoughts that our personal deadlines aren't worth meeting.