When it comes to project management, chances are you fall into one of two categories. The first: You set deadlines for your tasks, but they feel more like an obstacle in your way than a helpful guide to finishing a project. The second: You don’t set deadlines at all, so your projects drag on for much longer than needed. 

Does either of those sound like you? If so, you’re not alone. But that still doesn’t make your situation a good one.

Poorly managing your tasks and deadlines can squeeze more time out of your already busy day and come with serious financial ramifications. If you’re looking to break these habits, then below, learn how to set deadlines to maximize your productivity and complete your tasks on time.

What is the psychology behind deadlines?

An idea known as Parkinson’s Law grounds the logic of setting deadlines. According to this theory, work expands to fill the amount of time between its start and end dates. Without setting deadlines, you can easily waste time on frivolous tasks or just staring out the window. Setting healthy deadlines instead can help you get your work done on time without all the extra little intrusions.

8 tips on how to set deadlines

We get it: Setting deadlines is a skill that might not come easily. But spending enough time perfecting the art, and setting deadlines can be just like forming any other good habit. Below are several tips to help you start regularly setting realistic deadlines for your tasks.

1 Set actionable deadlines

Staring at a huge project can make your workload look daunting and crumble your motivation. For example, maybe you wrote, “complete web design project” or “gather meeting materials“ in your planner. You made a step toward productivity by setting goals and noting them. But stopping here can be the starting point of process paralysis, a term for when you can’t decide where to start on a project. And that does nothing for your productivity.

Instead of writing the name of your project or just its end goal, break your project into actionable tasks with specific deadlines. This way, you can clearly see what you need to be doing and when. With just a little extra planning, you can better focus your energy on the tasks at hand.

Pro tip

Use a meeting management tool like Fellow to assign action items and break down projects or goals into more manageable tasks.

Action Items Feature Fellow

2 Add a personality to your deadlines

You know how you work best. How your colleagues plan their deadlines might not work for you. That’s why personalizing your deadlines can help you feel less reluctant to check the due date for your next task.

For example, you might be a “big picture” kind of person. If so, to personalize your deadlines, start by determining when you want to complete a task. From there, you can calculate how much time per day or week you should spend working on it. If you work better with smaller details than the big picture, try scheduling your deadlines as new work comes in instead.

3 Use the 80/20 principle

The 80/20 principle, a.k.a. the Pareto Principle, states that 80 percent of an outcome comes from 20 percent of its causes. Teams often apply this aphorism in business and economics to identify their most productive resources and maximize their value for optimal results.

To apply this principle to your deadline-setting, pinpoint the factors that will have the greatest effect on your project’s outcome. Then, prioritize tasks based on those factors. In doing so, you’ll make more progress more quickly, get some extra motivation, and obtain results that reflect your hard work.

4 Set reminders

It can be easy to put a deadline in your planner and smother the date with a bright highlighter. But what happens after you close your planner? If your project’s deadline isn’t until early next month, you could receive quite an unpleasant surprise if you never look at the planner again. What if you flip your calendar to the next date range and only now realize that your assignment is due in a few days?

Set reminders for your deadlines to help prevent that feeling of panic. Make a calendar event or set an alarm on your phone to ring a few days or even a week before your assignment is due. Write a note on your whiteboard or ask a colleague to periodically check in with you about your progress. Taking each of these steps can give you a greater sense of urgency to complete your project and keep your tasks at the forefront of your mind.

5 Understand how projects do (or don’t) influence deadlines

Setting deadlines is all about managing your time while increasing your productivity. So you’ll need to determine the rigidity of your deadline based on your project. Gauge the flexibility you have in completing your project and set a deadline relative to that constraint.

Here’s an example: A customer needs you to design and publish their website in about three months. You’re a pro at making websites, so you estimate the project will only take you two months. Instead of setting your deadline for three months from now, you decide to complete the website in two months. This way, you’re giving yourself only the amount of time needed to complete the website and avoid dragging the project along for longer than needed. (Remember Parkinson’s Law?)

Finishing the site in two months allows you to transition your attention to other assignments on your list. And then, the cycle continues.

6 Be mindful of your coworkers’ limits

If you’re working on a project with multiple people, setting an achievable deadline depends on more than your individual capabilities and schedule. You might consider your tasks and the project’s checklist and decide you and your team can complete it all in one month. But notice that only you made that decision. When you consult with your team members, you might learn they have responsibilities to juggle alongside your project’s tasks.

To help set your team up for success, ask your team members about their current workload. Touching base with them can reveal how much time they’ll need to complete their project assignments. You can then set deadlines that suit everyone’s responsibilities without stretching them thin.

7 Use Hofstadter’s Law

“Any task you complete will always take longer than expected, even when Hofstadter’s Law is taken into account.” These are the words of Douglas Hofstadter, a cognitive scientist who realized the true unpredictability of tasks. So with this in mind, you might be wondering, “Why even plan?” But that’s a misunderstanding of Hofstadter’s Law. Instead of giving up, try adding another half hour or hour to what you think is realistic.

If you’re optimistic about how long a task will take, you might overestimate your productivity and underestimate any potential setbacks. To help you schedule your deadlines, think about the amount of time you’ve previously needed to complete similar assignments. Use that timing as the basis for your current estimation. Then, add a little extra time to your deadline to account for potential obstacles.

8 Write down your deadlines

With all your many responsibilities, you’re probably busy all the time. And you probably have tons of thoughts running through your head over the course of a day. If you struggle to keep up with your million and one tasks, let a piece of paper carry some of the weight. Studies show that you’re more likely to achieve your goals after writing them down.

This tendency stems from a brain process known as encoding. As your brain processes information, it determines what to include and exclude from its long-term memory. Writing your deadlines on paper increases the chance of your brain storing that information. This step can help you turn an intangible date into a reminder for action.

How to track deadlines

Clearly, keeping your dates in one place can help you stay organized and keep up with your work. That said, you might think of deadline-setting as itself another task on your list. In reality, though, tracking all your task deadlines doesn’t have to complicate your workday. With Fellow’s all-in-one productivity tools, you can create and view meeting action items and their attendant deadlines. This way, both you and your team always stay right on track.

Planning with purpose

Don’t let another project get away from you. Write down your tasks and set achievable deadlines to complete your work on time. Such intentional steps can become second nature with Fellow’s digital tools for all things productivity. Fellow can help you create collaborative meeting agendas, plan productive meetings, and foster constructive feedback. Each of these elements can help you set deadlines and efficiently conquer your projects.