Nothing raises stress levels like a fast-approaching deadline. Your approach to looming due dates can affect how much stress they create in your life. Often, what you may consider stress caused by a deadline is really due to poor planning. A few simple tips can help improve your scheduling skills so that deadlines don't catch you off guard.

Step 1: Look Before You Leap
To achieve better planning around deadlines, your strategy must start before you accept a new commitment. Not properly setting the stage for on-time delivery is often what lies behind failing to meet goals. The problem originates at the point when you agree to take on more than you know you can reasonably handle. Take a look at your schedule before agreeing to take it something on to determine if you can realistically deliver by the date requested.

Step 2: Examine the Big Picture
Deadlines can't be effectively viewed in a vacuum. At any given time, you'll likely have multiple commitments in different areas of your life, from family to work to daily maintenance. The key to deciding whether you can accept a certain deadline is to review all your commitments in total and decide if you truly have time for another one. Try mapping out everything you're already responsible for on a calendar, rather than relying on your memory to keep track. This will give you a visual representation of how much time you can feasibly devote to a new commitment.

Step 3: Negotiate if Needed
If your calendar check reveals that the proposed deadline will be too tight, see if you can buy more time. Deadlines are often set with some wiggle room built in, so communicate with the person who proposed the date and explore whether or not there's any flexibility.

Step 4: Divide into Mini-Deadlines
Once you've settled on a realistic deadline that your schedule allows you to accept, you need to prepare to meet it. When faced with a deadline, many people wait until the day before--or in some cases only a few hours before--a project is due to begin working on it. This last-minute approach rarely leaves enough time to confidently get the job done and often leads to stress.

Instead, as soon as the project as assigned and you've agreed on the deadline, sit down with a calendar and figure out how long the project will take you. The best way to do this is to work backward from the deadline, writing down specific "mini-deadlines" or steps that you must accomplish en route to a finished project. For example, writing a report that's due in five days might involve the following mini-deadlines:

  • Research companies that will be featured in the report (1 day)
  • Summarize findings in a written outline (1 day)
  • Write final report based on points in outline (2 days)
  • Edit/proofread report before turning in (1 day)

When you take the time to organize a project in this way, it often becomes clear how long a project will take. Having a realistic breakdown of the timing involved in each step will help keep you on track meeting your goal.

Step 5: Check Off Mini-Deadlines Until Project Is Complete
Simply follow your mini-deadlines in order, not moving to the next one until you complete the step before it. Sticking to your mini-deadlines--even though it may be tempting to let one slide--will help distribute your workload throughout the week rather than saving it all for a last-minute crunch. Working towards your goal in this way will provide you with a sense of satisfaction at each step of the project and will help take a load off your mind--as well as your stress level.