Do You Know How To Deal With Deadlines?


Every job has deadlines – certain dates and or times by which tasks must be accomplished.  We each handle deadlines in our own way – some start work well ahead of time, while others prefer the “just in time” mode. Some people create milestones (mini-deadlines) along the way, to keep themselves on track. How you handle deadlines, and if you meet or miss them, is a big part of your professional reputation, and greatly affects how your co-workers think of you.  Making sure you are responsive, and responsible, to your projects’ deadlines can go a long way toward advancing your career and making your team function more smoothly.

Determine the Deadline

Every project or task you are responsible for comes with at least an implicit deadline. Especially if it’s an important project, you want to ask questions and make sure you know exactly what and when results are expected of you.  If the deadline appears unrealistic, ask questions to make sure you understand the true scope of the assignment.  In some cases, you may need to re-negotiate the resources (time, materials and personnel) assigned to the task in order to make the deadline realistic.


Evaluate the Margin of Error

In some cases, “by close of business (COB) today” really means “on my desk when I arrive in the morning”.  In other cases, it means “must be completed and entered by 4:45 EST tonight” or “I’d like to see it sometime this week”.  Different companies, managers, and even different projects have different cultures, so make sure you know what the deadline really is.


Critical Path

You need to understand the dependencies between your tasks and other tasks on the same project.  Are there other people or projects who cannot move forward until your tasks are completed? Or are you working in parallel, so if something happens to hold up your piece, the overall project can still proceed in a timely fashion?  Obviously if others are waiting on you, meeting the deadline becomes critical.


Trim or Miss?

If you are not going to be able to meet the deadline, should you trim part of the project and submit 80% on time, or continue working and turn in a perfect result late? As soon as you anticipate a problem meeting the deadline you need to start thinking about contingency plans. The earlier you discuss contingencies, the better you will be able to focus your efforts, and the more time co-workers will have to adjust their expectations.

Balance Competing Deadlines

Rarely will you be working on only one project, with only one upcoming deliverable or deadline.  (And even if you are, you probably want to break it down into smaller pieces, each with their own deadlines.)  Making sure each project is moving forward, and will meet its own deadline is essential.

In the end, deadlines can be useful tools to help prioritize work and keep it moving forward. Tracking and meeting all your deadlines, will enhance your professional reputation as reliable and dependable – and set you up for new career opportunities.

Get Involved In The Discussion

Get Involved In The Discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Careers blog (—Brought to you by ACS Careers

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