How to Survive an Unreasonable Deadline & Live to Laugh About It

How to Survive an Unreasonable Deadline & Live to Laugh About It

Research establishes extending a reasonable deadline to get a task done does little to actually help get the task done (see

Of course the reason most deadlines have to be extended, is most original deadlines – self-imposed or imposed by someone else – are “unreasonable” to begin with. This is the for two reasons:

  1. You impose an unreasonable deadline on yourself: You are not as good as you think you are! As I tell the Executives, Managers and Team Leaders in my coaching program “You are good, but you are not as good as you think you are!” We all believe, even though there is ample past evidence to the contrary, in the fallacy that we are better/faster at getting things done then we really are. Based on this erroneous belief, when we set a self-imposed deadline, it is often unrealistic because it is based on the fallacy of how easy the task is or how good/fast we are.

How to avoid this fallacy and set a reasonable voluntary deadline: When you have to determine the amount of time (the deadline) it’s going to take you to complete a task, don’t give a knee jerk response based on how easy you think the task is going to be or how good/fast you think you are! Instead, take a breathe, and write your knee jerk deadline response down. Then allocate twice that amount of time to complete the task. For those who are shocked by this approach, believing it relieves a person from the self-imposed pressure of working as hard as they can, understand I don’t make recommendations that are not based on 20 years of coaching others who work in an organizational setting. For a variety of unforeseen reasons (i.e. a Team Member leaving the Team; you get additional unexpected work), the task will become more difficult and seldom is the deadline extended based on these unforeseen reasons. Also, once a deadline for completion is determined, immediately create the Action Plan that will ensure you meet the deadline. But creating an Action Plan is a topic for another blog article.

2. You have an unreasonable deadline imposed on you: A Manager or Team Leader is assigned a task and has agreed to an unreasonable deadline for completion of the task. Then, as a Member of this Team Leader’s Team, you are assigned your part of the task, this unreasonable deadline accompanies it. It now becomes your responsibility even though you had nothing to do with creating or agreeing to it. Welcome to working with an ineffective Team Leader!

The two ways to respond to an unreasonable imposed deadline:

a. Do not immediately default to “yes”: Do not engage in the immediate knee jerk response to “yes” when given a task with an unreasonable deadline. Instead acknowledge the need to complete the task and your desire to complete it by the deadline. Then point out that the newly assigned task can only be done at the expense of a task that has already been assigned the time, energy and resources necessary to do the newly assigned task. This forces the Team Leader to decide which of the two tasks you should devote your time, energy and resources to and gives you some relief from the unreasonable deadline.

b. Do the best you can: There is a lawyer joke that goes like this: a 60 year old defendant stands before the judge who gives him a 50 year sentence. The defendant, in a stricken voice, says “But your Honor, I’m 60 years old! I’ll never be able to complete that sentence!” and the judge replies “Just do the best you can.” The moral of this story is if there is no option do the best you can. However, continue to keep whoever assigned you the task and the unreasonable deadline, apprised of your progress. If it becomes apparent you are definitely not going to make the deadline, ask for more resources so the task can be finished by the deadline or ask for more time. Remember, no one in business like a bad surprise. Your Manager/Team Leader not knowing in time to do something about the fact you are not going to finish the task on time is a very bad surprise.

The Coach’s Corner: Most of us are bound by someone else’s deadline but that doesn’t mean this process shouldn’t be used to bring some reality to the situation. Two final caveats: 1. Most of the time, saying no to your Manager or Team Leader when given an unreasonable deadline is not a viable option, so don’t do it. It’s a career shortener for sure.

2. If you don’t use the process I’ve outlined here, you will get what you have always got: more unreasonable deadlines.

I could be wrong…but I’m not.

Thanks for reading.

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