What's your Problem?

How can I get better at managing deadlines?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I have a terrible fear of deadlines. No matter how hard I try to be organised, I inevitably procrastinate and leave things to the last minute.This makes me stressed and impairs the quality of my work, but I always seem to get away with it. Although I vow after every project to change my ways, I never do. What's wrong with me? I'm getting more and more frustrated with myself.

A: There's nothing wrong with you. Or if there is, there's something wrong with a great number of other people as well. Yours is a common anxiety - I suffered from it myself for years and occasionally still do.

There are all sorts of reasons why it happens, and not all of them are ignoble. Procrastination may be a symptom of indolence or inefficiency, but it's by no means always that. If the task involved demands any form of creativity on your part, it's just as likely to be a symptom of apprehension: a barely conscious fear of being unable to master that task to your own demanding standards. So you put it off and put it off until you can put it off no longer.

And sometimes leaving things to the last minute actually improves the quality of the work done. Some studies suggest that the added stimulus of a rapidly looming deadline has a direct chemical effect on the brain and acts as a sort of supercharger. So waiting until the last minute isn't necessarily irresponsible. It may cause you stress, but that same stress may be exactly what you need to get a job done well. (To test this hypothesis, just imagine having the opposite of a deadline: an infinity in which to complete a task. Adrenaline doesn't kick in much, does it?)

You say your procrastination impairs the quality of your work. I wonder how you know that? Leaving things to the last minute may deny you the time for that final polish; but it may already have given your work a certain edge that a more 'organised' person would have failed to deliver.

So I don't think it's deadlines you fear; it's your own ability to do things well enough. And however many times you 'get away with it', each time that fear returns. You not only need to learn to live with it; you should also, perversely, learn to be grateful for it.

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