How to set deadlines

Defining deliverables and setting smart deadlines is one of the key activities of a project manager. Here I’ll show you what you should consider when setting deadlines.

Setting time goals for project work isn’t just about looking how long a task will take. There’s much more behind.

Let’s go through it step by step.

When do you need it?

The first question to ask is: “By when do I need the result?“. If we are talking about software development, the question would be “When does the software need to be ready?“.

The answer to this question depends on what activities follow in the project plan that require this task to be done.

To stay with the IT context, you may have a user acceptance test coming up in 3 months during which the interface has to be tested. Hence, the software would have to be completed within the next 3 months.

Of course you wouldn’t set the deadline for 3 months from now.

Your gut tells you this would be too late, right? It would be risky.

What you want is to have some buffer.

Plan in sufficient buffer

Any project manager will tell you from his experience that deadlines usually get stretched. There are many reasons for this. Some are within your control but most aren’t.

The most common reasons are:

  • other work gets in the way
  • team members falling sick
  • work gets for forgotten
  • work results don’t meet your quality standards and need rework

Factoring in a buffer is one of the few things you can control as a project manager. That’s why you should make use of it!

How much buffer should you factor in?

It should be enough time to “fix things” in the event that the deliverable is not completed within the agreed timeframe, or that the result does not meet your expectations.

What’s important: Don’t calculate buffer just in terms of calendar days, but consider actual working days where your team is free to concentrate on project work. There may be bank holidays, workshops or other meetings in between where people won’t be able to work on their project-related tasks.

The delivery date then is the date by when you need the result minus the number of days calculated as buffer.

Check with your team when the work can be completed

Equipped with the information by when you need the result, you discuss the task with your team. You need to clarify whether they will be able to complete the work as per the expected deadline.

You: “Hi Zac, about the interface development you are in charge of: We would need the interface to be ready by 16th of March. Does that seem feasible for you?”

Either it’s a yes or a no.

If it’s a yes, great.

If the deadline is too close you need to dig a little deeper. Basically, you need to understand why your colleague thinks he or she cannot finish the work as per the desired end date.

Maybe there is too much other work that is competing to be done.

Here are some helpful questions you can ask:

  • Why is it not possible for you to finish the work per [date]?
  • What else are you working on right now?
  • Is there anyone who could support you? / who could take over some of your tasks?
  • What would be necessary for you to be able to complete the work within this timeframe?

Apart from the fact that the task simply may simply be too big to be completed within the timeframe you want, there can be other reasons why your team may be hesitant to commit to an early deadline.

Some people are perfectionists and they rather make something 100% than working on it at all. However, in many cases a “good enough” result will be sufficient for the project to move on.

Also, you could be check if the deliverable can be broken down further. And if yes, what parts are required urgently and which ones can be provided later?

Example: You are building a house and are under pressure to move in with all your furniture. Your flooring specialist informs you that it’s going to take 3 weeks to complete the floors in all rooms. That’s too late! Why not finish the floors in the living areas first so that you have a place to store your furniture. The other rooms can be floored later.

The psychology behind deadlines

It’s an observation that you have probably┬ámade yourself: The more time you give yourself to complete a task, the more time you will actually spend and the more likely you are going to procrastinate and complicate things (this is known also as Parkinson’s law).

It’s the feeling of time pressure which will give you the focus to complete a job on time. That’s the main reason why I prefer to host short 30-minute meetings which actually produce a result instead of long 2-hour sessions which where nothing is decided in.

How should you track deadlines?

It’s clear that you must have some sort of system to track deliverables and deadlines. I use a simple Excel tracking list which you can download here. You can also use a professional tool like Jira or Trello — whatever you prefer.

task tracking list
task tracking list

For all super-critical deliverables I also put a reminder in my Outlook calendar. Actually I might put in a reminder for a few days before the deadline. This way I can check in with my team and do whatever needs to be done so that the deadline will be met.

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