When it comes to a due date, there is usually only one important rule: A deadline is a deadline is a deadline! Once the day has passed, you
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© Erik Werner
often get reminded again, why it is called DEADline. It doesn’t have to be a week of night shifts and a last minute submission marathon though. Here are a few tips how you can prepare and ease the pressure.
Let’s have a look at the word for a second. The Oxford Dictionary Onlinedefines deadline as

“the latest time or date by which something should be completed.

No surprise here, that’s what we now all understand by it as it is apparently used widely in journalism initially. The historical meaning is interesting though. Again, the Oxford Dictionary:

“a line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot,

according to the Online Etymology Dictionary derived from Civil War prisons.

Just last week I was going through it again, supporting three project coordinators with their second stage FP7 proposals. The do-not-cross line was 17:00 o’clock Brussels time, a very strict deadline, and the punishment for crossing (the shooting) would be NOT to have a proposal evaluated. Imagine the months of work, the dozens of people contributing, the night shifts struggling with your favourite text editor’s layout options. All for nothing and no guarantee that the topic will be in any future work programme again. Here is your prison ;-).

There are other occasions where you have to meet a deadline, either set by someone externally or by yourself; a report, a publication, a meeting presentation, a strategy, a website launch, etc. Many people tend to take care of important steps close to, or even worse, shortly after the deadline. That is why I have usually some buffer time built in when setting delivery dates – not possible for those proposal submissions mentioned above though. However, if someone has worked with me for a while, they already know that and setting the internal deadline earlier and earlier reaches limits very fast. So it comes back to planning and preparing for deadlines as the only option to avoid the panic.

Everyone who has done training on time management most likely will have created a protocol, writing down the actions of the days, the time they took and then categorising them by importance and by urgency. Besides some other useful guidelines (like “do things now” and don’t lose time by taking them up again and again; or trash those not urgent / not important things – they never get done anyway), the important conclusion you can draw from this exercise is to avoid urgent AND important activities by planning time for them when they are not urgent yet.

Naturally, the more complex your activity is, the earlier you need to start with it. Take the grant proposal as an example again. Your goal should be to finish everything one week ahead of the deadline. Yes, it is possible! Here a rough schedule I recommend:

  1. Starting point, at least 6 months before the deadline. You know what is expected formally, you know the deadline and you have at least a core team already. Use this time to straighten your plan, define the objectives and complete the teams. Make sure everybody knows his/her role in the project AND in the process. Organise a partner meeting if necessary and make sure your list of requirements is complete. Think of your local organisations requirements as well (signatures, formal approval of budgets, etc.).
  2. Structure of the process and the outcome, 3 months before the deadline. Everybody involved should by now agree on the overall structure of the project and the responsibilities of the involved people. It often is a good idea to have someone responsible for a subset of the undertaking and having this person take care of it independently. This includes requesting contributions from others and finally delivering a certain part of the final product. An outline text in the actual structure (often in the given template format) should be available now and should also include the necessary guidelines. Start requesting text now from everybody involved.
  3. Process plan for the final six weeks. Now, all formal approvals, forms, budgets and the availability of key contributors in the last two, three weeks prior to the deadline need to be in place. Intensive writing should be in the pre-final phase and deal with the necessary level of detail requested by your end product.
  4. Complete draft, three weeks prior to the deadline. You would not need to be able to submit this yet but the document should contain all necessary concept and detail text now. Activate those people who you have prepared for test evaluating your text in due course and remember that they might do this for many teams, all preparing for the same deadline. While they do that over the next week or so, think of ways to improve the readability of your document. Prepare figures that explain your concept and your project. Work on the gaps that are still there and make sure that everything is consistent. Very important if you plan a project: make sure the timing of steps you describe makes sense and the different parts relate to each other in a logical way.
  5. Start fine tuning, two weeks prior to the deadline. Bring everything together from the previous weeks, the text, the comments, the figures, the numbers, etc. Make sure it is a homogeneous text in style and layout now. If you use electronic systems (like the one for FP7 proposals), submit early and replace with new versions over the following weeks.
  6. Finished document, one week to the deadline. Send out to everybody involved and to your test reviewers again to ensure that all gaps are filled, that all facts are still correct after you have possibly re-written parts of it and that the document can mature a bit. The improvements in this time can make the difference between funding and not funding, approval and no approval.
  7. The second last day. Use it for final touches and layout, check spelling and grammar.
  8. Deadline day. Do not plan anything for that day, you will need it for everything you have not planned for, issues that come up in the last second.

Obviously, this will vary in a specific situation. If you have gone through it multiple times with the same people, short notice might sometimes be enough. If you start from scratch, preparation can take much longer. It depends on the importance of the outcome as well. If funding relies on it, you will put in more effort of course.

Well, this is the theory, but as ever, life often is just not like that. So many things can jeopardise your planning, as good as it has been. But many issues are also self-induced and could be avoided. Here some issues that make life harder than necessary. Maybe you can avoid some of them by simply preparing in time.

  1. Do not change your plan too often and not too late. The product, being a report or a proposal or something else will not improve if you change the whole concept in the last minute.
  2. Don’t give in the “nice to have” temptation. Yes, some things are nice but not necessary. Someone wants to include a buddy or add something that would be great but is not core to the project, not within the budget or simply too late to implement.
  3. Everybody needs to have a chance to see the complete document IN TIME for final comments, for filling in last gaps, for avoiding major errors, etc.
  4. Confirm the necessary resources early enough. You would not want to deal with “but I cannot do this with that budget, I did not know about those overheads” on deadline day, now would you?