How to Set Deadlines (& 7 Common Mistakes to Avoid)

A deadline is a budget for your time. Just like a budget for your spending can help keep you out of debt, keeping budgets for your time can keep you productive. If used appropriately, a deadline can greatly increase the chances you’ll finish a project. But if you misuse them, deadlines can just become a headache.

When Do Deadlines Work?

Deadlines can help you become more productive if:

  1. You’re worried about feature creep. If your project has the tendency to expand and become larger, deadlines force you to focus on what’s most important.
  2. You might procrastinate. Deadlines can push you through work you don’t enjoy. Without deadlines, some work would always be pushed until tomorrow.
  3. You’re outside your comfort zone. Keeping a time limit can force you to push through fears. There’s a point when you are prepared enough and just need to move forward. Deadlines can help you find that point.
  4. You need to build experience quickly. Sometimes trial and error is the best solution. It might not be pretty, but it works. Setting short deadlines force you to put your ideas to the test instead of endlessly polishing them.

Those four characteristics are all good reasons to use deadlines. I know whenever I plan a several month project, that a deadline is critical. If I leave the timeline open-ended, I will probably expand the project faster than I can complete it. Often my first step in these large projects is to pin down the date of completion.

Deadlines are also great for kicking yourself into action. If your motivation is running a bit low, you can use a time limit to beat procrastination. My productivity system is geared towards to-do lists that have either a daily or weekly deadline. Without that deadline, it would be harder to get started.

When Do Deadlines Break Down?

Deadlines can be overused, or used for reasons that aren’t appropriate. When you see the impact a deadline has on combating procrastination or finishing projects, it is easy to branch that idea into areas that don’t really work.

There are more than a few mistakes you can make when setting deadlines. Here are a few:

1) Trying to Motivate Yourself With Long-Term Deadlines

The most motivating deadline is the one that is due tomorrow. Unless your five-year project can be broken down into things you need to finish today, it won’t help you beat procrastination.

2) Setting Unrealistically Hard Deadlines

Just because you set a deadline to double your income in one month, doesn’t make it possible. Setting extremely challenging deadlines usually has the opposite effect from what was intended. As soon as you start to doubt your ability to finish in time, you’ll lose motivation to try.

3) Adding a Time Limit When You Really Need Patience

There are many areas of life where you don’t have control over how quickly results come. Setting a strict deadline in these cases is just a recipe for stress. Deadlines work best when you have 100% control over results. If you don’t have 100% control, limit your deadlines to those areas where you do have control.

You might not have complete control over how much you weigh next month, but you do have control over your diet and exercise patterns. It might be better to set a deadline for your eating habits, but not leave a specific deadline for your weight.

4) Not Writing Down Your Deadline

A deadline in your head is just a whim. Putting it onto paper gives it power. I write out every deadline I set either on paper or stored digitally. Without this record of my commitments, it is easy to back out later.

5) Failing to Research Before Setting a Deadline

If you don’t have experience with a project, how can you know the length of time needed to finish? Find people who have finished similar projects and ask them how long it took. Their estimate is far more reliable than an uninformed guess. It’s easy to be overambitious when setting deadlines and ignore the more reasonable limits set by other people.

6) Setting a Deadline Before Exploring Your Options

Sometimes setting a deadline can drastically increase the time spent on a problem. When I was working on a software project a few years ago, I set aside two months to design a large chunk of basic functions. Halfway through I realized that a plugin would complete everything I needed for less than $20.

Before you set a deadline, explore all the potential options you can think of. After you have set the deadline, it is difficult to see any options that don’t fit closely within your predefined time-limit. Even if they are much faster.

7) Be Wary When Setting Deadlines on Inflexible Projects

Deadlines work best when there is flexibility. If you have a choice about which features are added and which are ignored, a deadline is a great tool. But be careful when setting deadlines for projects without that flexibility. If you have absolutely no control over what needs to be finished, it might not be useful to emphasize a long-term deadline.

What about deadlines you haven’t set yourself? Dealing with these hard deadlines are another problem, which I previously wrote about in How to Motivate Yourself Without Hard Deadlines.

Do you have any tips or advice for setting deadlines? Please share them in the comments below.

Image by Mike9Alive.



Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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