10 Ways to Actually Beat Deadlines
Deadline. It just sounds ominous, doesn’t it? But take heart: You can tackle any project with these tried-and-true time management tricks, like taking frequent breaks and asking for help when it counts.
The word deadline dates back to the Civil War. At the notorious Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, a line was drawn 17 feet inside the perimeter fence. Guards were authorized to shoot any prisoner who crossed the line.
Adults and children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) don’t exactly need a gun pointed at us to get us going on projects. But many of us do need organization help because we have a hard time with time management—especially with difficult or boring projects. This is certainly true for me. Take this column; I assured my editor that I’d have no trouble getting it done on time, and yet the more I thought about it, the harder it seemed to write. So here I am, one day before my deadline, and I’m just now starting.
I’ve had similar difficulties in trying to complete my master’s thesis (after many years as an ADHD coach, I returned to school three years ago). Obviously, it’s not easy to write a thesis, especially when your entire work week is spent seeing clients. But to make matters worse, I was given only a suggested deadline. I could take as long as I wanted, as long as I kept paying my tuition bills.
You can guess what happened. The suggested deadline—last October 17—came and went, and I had gotten nowhere. Research was no problem, because I enjoyed it. But sitting down to write was no fun. I knew so much about my topic that I felt overwhelmed.
Three months ago, I decided it was time to buckle down and devote every weekend to writing. The first weekend passed, and I still didn’t have anything on paper. I did have a spotless kitchen, an empty laundry basket, and a well-stocked pantry. The ensuing weekends weren’t much more productive. Sometimes I just gave up and went to the movies. It was torture. How would I ever finish?
Last month, I hired someone to watch over me. That’s right, a nanny. I gave her strict instructions. She was to arrive at 8:00 a.m., fix breakfast for me, and make sure I was at my desk by 9 o’clock. There was to be no radio, no TV, no telephone – and no e-mail. At 10:30, I was allowed a 15-minute break to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water (no soda!), and grab a carrot, yogurt, or some other healthful food. At 12:15 p.m. sharp, she was to have my lunch ready. At 1:15, I had to be back at my desk, where I was to work until 5:00.
One last instruction to my nanny was for her to call me at 10 p.m. to remind me to go to bed. Just about the only thing I didn’t ask her to do was to shoot me if I tried to leave my desk between breaks. I cannot tell you what a difference she made. After months of procrastination, I am now close to finishing my thesis. I’ve completed four drafts and am halfway through my final draft. I’m confident that I will finish before the current quarter is over.
Taking twice as long to do my thesis as my classmates makes me feel different, but I have to remind myself that I am different. After all, who but an someone with ADHD would think to hire a nanny?
Here’s my 10-point plan for meeting all of your deadlines, big and small:
1. Don’t bite off more than you can chew
Consider how much time is available in your busy schedule, and plan accordingly. If you take on a new project, you may have to cut back on other activities in order to finish it on time.
2. Post your deadlines where you will see them
This will remind you to use your time wisely. For my course work, I highlighted the syllabus and put it on the wall over my desk. For the thesis, I created a computer screensaver that read “February 26 or Bust.”
3. Break big projects into smaller projects, and assign a deadline for completing each
Most of the time, we’re given a deadline for the date by which the entire project has to be completed. To keep yourself on track, mark the date by which you should complete one-quarter of the project, one-half, and so on. Those dates will alert you to problems while there’s still time to play catch-up.
4. Set deadlines for others
Those of us with ADHD dislike deadlines so much that we’re often reluctant to set appropriate deadlines for others. Often, as I was working on my thesis, I’d find that I needed to ask my professors a question. To make sure I could get going on time each Saturday morning, I asked them to get back to me with answers no later than Friday afternoon. Otherwise, I would have lost momentum-or relied upon the excuse that I couldn’t keep working because I was unsure about what to do next.
5. When time runs short, outsource
I was spending way too much time putting the finishing touches on my thesis (preparing the table of contents, checking citations, and so on). So I sent those pieces of the project off to an editor. That saved me at least a full day’s work.
Don’t assume that you must do every portion of a project. In many cases, it makes sense to outsource or delegate.
6. Take frequent breaks
Those who fail to get away from a project occasionally are likely to start avoiding the project—or to just plain give up. I asked my nanny to make me take breaks, even when I didn’t want to. I knew that would help me avoid burnout.
7. Start and end when you say you will
While writing my thesis, I started at 9 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m., so I had time to socialize in the evening. Knowing I would quit at 5 kept me going. I could say to myself, “only two more hours… only one more hour,” and so on. If I hadn’t committed to stopping at 5, I might have thought, “I’ll take a break and do something else and work on it later in the evening.” This kind of thinking is dangerous for people with ADHD, who are easily distracted.
8. Change your inner voice
Think of positive things you can say to yourself to stay motivated. Some of my clients write down “positive affirmations” and keep them nearby to glance at.
Example: “I’m going to feel great when I hand this in to my boss on time.” Or, simply, “I can do this!” As I was writing my thesis, I often caught myself thinking, “Oh, well, I can just sign up for another quarter and take my time.” Each time I did, I immediately changed that to, “NO! You WILL get this thesis done THIS quarter!”
9. Define your objectives
When I started my thesis project, my objective was to learn as much as possible about my topic. I accomplished that, but it wasn’t until my objective became saving money and finishing by the end of February that I was able to stay focused on the hard part: writing. Finishing on time is one of the most important objectives for people with ADHD.
10. If all else fails… hire a nanny!
It seemed an extravagance at the time. But in the end, the nanny cost a lot less than another quarter of school. She was worth every penny!