The last time you had a major project to tackle, you set a deadline for yourself—and then came very close to blowing right through it. The result: You hastily finished (or pulled an all-nighter), and then swore you’d never repeat that experience.
While you had the best intentions, things happen: You got busy, or distracted, or procrastinated, or forgot. But to have a different result next time, you can’t just set deadlines the same way and expect different results. You’ll need to go about it in a way that’ll actually inspire you to get things done.
Here’s how you can do that:
1. Make Them Urgent
It’s easy to put off a task when you have all the time in the world to complete it (i.e., a deadline of two months from now isn’t a helpful goal). Without any sense of urgency, you’re able to continually turn to activities that are more fun than whatever work you have to do.
The solution is simple: Schedule your deadlines as near to the present as possible. Instead of giving yourself a month to do something, tell yourself you’re getting it done this week. Not only will you stay more driven throughout the process, but you’re also likely to start working on your assignment earlier than you normally would.
2. Make Them Personal
Everyone thinks differently. You know this firsthand because there’s been more than one meeting where you and your co-worker suggested different ways to solve a problem. If you tune into your skills, experiences and preferences, you’ll come up with a better system than if you just set deadlines the same way as everyone else.
Productivity expert Carson Tate suggests people fall into one of four categories: prioritizers, planners, arrangers, and visualizers. The ideal system for each one fits with the name: prioritizers and planners like to work based on how much time each part of a task will take, arrangers focus on how they’re feeling, and visualizers are motivated by considering the big picture.
So, instead of just saying, “I have to complete this task by [date]” consider whether focusing on the task in its entirety, piece-by-piece, or in relation to the rest of your projects will make you more likely to sit down and work on it.
3. Make Them Actionable
You have the best intentions, but when your tasks feel like trying to move a mountain in a day, it can be hard to sit down and start. After all, if you’ll barely be able to chip away at your goal, is it even worth it?
Instead, try breaking down your projects into smaller, actionable steps. One way to cut your task into bite-size chunks is to imagine that you could only work in 10-minute segments. If “finish report,” will take all afternoon, ask yourself what you could do in 10-minutes: outline the first portion, design two or three slides, or edit what you’ve written so far?
If you’re someone who struggles with getting started, identifying one, actionable 10-minute chunk will help you get started—and if you like this system, you can keep it up until you’re done.
4. Make Them Meaningful
What happens when you miss a deadline you set for yourself? Do you tell yourself it’s no big deal?
If there’s no accountability, there’s no reason to actually stick to them. The solution here is to tell someone about it or to use an app (I love Any.do). Don’t just write down you’ll finish that report by Monday, tell your boss she can expect it early next week. Instead of simply striving to send your teammate feedback before the end of the day, email him to say that’s your goal.
Having an outside motivator prevents you from simply pushing off the task and justifying it inside your own head.
Deadlines are supposed to increase productivity, not lead to a self-loathing cycle of setting a goal, missing it, feeling bad, and repeating the same process once more. So, if your system hasn’t been working for you, try the tips above to feel better about your work and get more done.