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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

What to Do When You Know You're Going to Miss a Deadline

It happens to the best of us. Maybe accounting didn’t get you the numbers on time. Maybe the design work you thought would take you four hours is taking more like 14. Maybe Taco Tuesday turned into Food Poisoning Tuesday, and there’s just no way you can drag yourself to the office to finish Wednesday’s client report.

In any case, you’re going to miss a deadline, and you know your boss, your customer, or whoever else you owe your work to is not going to be excited.

As a writer and an editor, I’ve unfortunately been on both sides of the missed deadline dilemma. And here are a few things I’ve tried and seen that will help you get the extension you need while keeping your relationships intact.

Give as Much Advance Notice as Possible

There’s nothing more infuriating (not to mention unprofessional) than, “Oops, I missed today’s deadline. Can I turn it in next week?”

Obviously, there are exceptions (see: food poisoning), but for the most part, you should try to give as much notice as possible if you think you’re going to be delivering something late. It’s much easier for the other party to plan around you if you say something like, “I’m just digging into the project, and it looks like the data collection is going to take a few days longer than I originally anticipated. Can I extend the deadline from next Friday to the following?” In fact, most people will be perfectly happy to extend a deadline when given a good reason. Well in advance.

Explain Yourself—Briefly

On that note, it’s always professional to explain why you’re going to be turning something in late. Of course, not all deadlines are created equal—a client deliverable set in stone in a contract is a little different than a progress report you mentioned you’d get to your co-worker “sometime next week”—and a different level of explanation will be required for each. But a good rule of thumb is to succinctly explain why things aren’t going according to plan, without blaming anyone or going on and on about your sick dog, broken computer, or mounting to-do list.

A simple outline of the facts (“unfortunately, I’ve run into some snags with the reporting software”) is typically sufficient. That said, you can do yourself a serious favor if you…

Give an Option or a Bonus

One of my all-time favorite writers also has one of my all-time favorite I’m-going-to-miss-a-deadline strategies: She gives me the option of whether to have her bust her you-know-what to turn it in on time or to give her an extension. Think: “I’m in the middle of a project that’s taking quite a bit longer than expected. Will it screw up your timing if I deliver the draft tomorrow? If so, I’ll crank it out tonight. If not, I’d so appreciate an extension and will have to you tomorrow!” A vast majority of the time, I’m happy to oblige.

Similarly, you can always offer to deliver the finished portion of the work. Think: “I can definitely have pages 1-6 of the report to you by tonight—or I can deliver all 10 pages by tomorrow at noon.”

If you’re really putting someone in a tough place by missing a deadline, think about what you could offer that would make up for the inconvenience. I’ve had writers offer to send me two articles instead of one to make up for a missed deadline—or if you’re working with a client, you can offer to deliver an add-on to your product or service or a slight reduction in fee. You may be putting someone out once—but if you help him or her out in another way, that’s bound to leave a positive impression.

Show Professionalism and Appreciation

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of late work, you know what a pain it is, so make sure you show your appreciation when you’re asking for an extension. No need to wax poetic, but a simple, “I really appreciate you making this exception. It won’t happen again” goes a long way.

Also, pick a new deadline and stick to it. People are more apt to keep seeing you as professional and reliable you if they know exactly when they can expect the late work. Instead of a vague, “Can I have an extension?” try, “Could I get the report to you by Tuesday instead? It’ll be in your inbox by 5 PM—hopefully sooner.” And then, you know, make sure it happens.

Make Sure It’s Rare

Perhaps the best advice of all is to make sure you’re not in the habit of missing deadlines. When my always-reliable writer asks for a one-time extension, I’m more than happy to rearrange things. When people turn things in late on the reg, it gets harder and harder to give them a pass.

My favorite tip for making sure you’re always prompt is to set a faux deadline for yourself a day or two before your actual deadline—even put it in your calendar, which tricks your brain into thinking it’s due a few days before. Stick to that date, and you’ll always be safe.

Even if you, you know, come down with food poisoning.

What tips do you have for asking for a deadline extension?

Photo of calendar courtesy of Shutterstock.

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