For a lot of freelancers, deadlines are the enemy. As they approach, we stress and fret about not getting our work done on time, the ultimate sin. After all, 20 percent of people are chronic procrastinators, while 95 percent say they procrastinate sometimes, per Brandon Gaille.
However, deadlines can also be an extremely powerful tool if you learn to use them properly. They can help you plan with clarity, increase your productivity, and take control of your work rather than having your work control you.
Here are five ways to use deadlines to your advantage.
Set up a buffer
Even if you stagger most deadlines, there’s often one that slips past your memory and disrupts your workflow. There are few things as dreadful for freelancers as remembering a deadline at the last minute.
When marking off an assignment on the calendar, many of us probably schedule it for the day it’s due. But as Cal Newport points out on his blog, there’s a smarter approach that could help you avoid scheduling errors: “Any serious deadline should not exist on your calendar just as a note on a single day. It should instead be an event that spans the entire week preceding the actual deadline.”
By blocking out the whole week before the deadline on your calendar or phone, you’ll be more cognizant of your workload leading up to the due date. Not only will this move help you remember what you have to focus on, but it could also make it easier for you to stagger future assignments weeks and months in advance.
Move your deadlines up
Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. It’s not just a funny observation; it’s called Parkinson’s Law. If you’ve felt unproductive or if you want to increase your output, move your deadlines up. That’s right, giving yourself less time could actually make you more productive.
According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, deadlines set near the present encouraged people to get started on their work, while deadlines set further in the future (e.g., early next month, early next year) encouraged procrastination.
Instead of setting your deadline for next Monday, try moving it up to this Friday. You may find yourself more compelled to work throughout the week. If you’re used to catching up with work on weekends to meet a Monday deadline, moving your deadlines up to Friday could mean finally getting to relax on Sunday.
And you don’t necessarily need to tell your editor about the accelerated deadline for it to be effective. It might sound counterintuitive, but shorter deadlines could also clear your head and help you think straight.
In order to ensure you get things done on time and move past the intimidation of a deadline, set up milestones along the way so you don’t procrastinate or feel overwhelmed.
Break your project down to its smallest elements. This tactic will give you a better idea of what to prioritize and any potential bottlenecks that could get in the way down the road. If there are a lot of other collaborators or moving parts to the project, keep track of their progress as well, and ensure you have plenty of time to consolidate the work.
Similarly, schedule extra time for revisions, testing, and any other quality assurance tasks so you’re not frantically rushing through important steps the evening before a deadline.
Limit unrealistic deadlines
Unrealistic deadlines are practically unavoidable for freelancers. One or two every once in a while are acceptable—they come with the job. But if you’re treading water and struggling to keep up with unrealistic deadlines, you’re going to burn out.
As Meridian Health Plan CIO Tom Lauzon said, “When you finish a project with an unrealistic deadline, your reward is another project with another unrealistic deadline.”
Bringing up the issue with a client might seem like an awkward conversation, but if the client is happy with your work, they should be willing to meet you halfway and adjust future deadlines within reason. The alternative is to risk burning out, which not only puts the client’s work in jeopardy but could also mess up your work with other clients.
Set deadlines for fun
The freedom you enjoy as a freelancer certainly comes with tradeoffs. As the rest of the working population gets ready to sleep, you might just be getting into your groove as a night owl. When you have an abundance of work, you are focused on making sure it all gets done so you can last through the meager months. It’s easy to forget to relax and take a break.
As Wise Bread senior writer Sarah Winfrey reminds us, setting deadlines for fun tasks can be beneficial. “It helps us maintain our balance as human beings, and it provides space for our minds to think creatively,” writes Winfrey. “If fun isn’t happening, we need to put it in our schedules and give ourselves deadlines to make sure that we’re playing along with our work. We want to be healthy, and fun helps us do that. Anything, then, that makes sure we include fun in our lives, is worth the effort of doing.”
If it’s been a while since you’ve done something for yourself, then schedule it in your calendar and give it a deadline. Make sure you spend time, either with yourself or with friends and loved ones, to zone out and have fun.
Deadlines don’t have to be viewed as ticking time bombs that control your life. You can use deadlines to jumpstart your productivity, be more creative, and reconnect with other parts of your life. Also, if you know you’re going to miss a deadline, let clients know ahead of time and offer an option or a bonus. No one is perfect, but it’s best to make sure you deliver the rest of your projects on time—or ahead of schedule. So if you want to improve your time management skills, see if these five strategies can help you stay on top of your work.