How to Deal With Unreasonable Deadlines at Work

Look at your colleagues. How do they deal with similar situations?

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If you find yourself constantly struggling to meet impossible deadlines at work, it’s worth stepping back and taking a different approach to the problem. Here are six strategies that might help you cope.

1. Look at your colleagues. If you have colleagues who do similar work, do they also face similar deadlines? If so, how do they meet them? Are they starting earlier, planning differently, pulling in additional help, or using any other strategies that you can copy?

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2. Break the project down differently. Often much of a project—say, 85 percent—can be accomplished quickly, and it’s the remaining 15 percent that will take much longer. It’s worth asking if you can take longer with that more time-consuming 15 percent. Sometimes if you ask you’ll discover that as long as you get certain pieces of the work done by the deadline, it’s OK to take longer on other parts.

3. Tell your manager what you can do. Your manager doesn’t want to just be told that you can’t meet a deadline without getting some indication of what you could do. Instead of just saying a deadline is impossible, try saying something like, “With only 10 days, I can do X and Y, and I’ll need to modify Z in the following ways. And we won’t have finished fully testing it, but that could be wrapped up two days later. Would that work?”

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4. If the problem is chronic, raise it as a big-picture issue. Aside from talking with your manager about deadlines for a specific project, make sure you address the pattern as well. For instance, you could say something like, “I’ve noticed that we sometimes have different ideas about what are realistic timeframes for many projects. I want to be able to do the job well and deliver a good product, but sometimes we’re given deadlines that aren’t possible to meet, not if the product is going to be any good. I believe in pushing myself and I think you know I work hard, but I’m concerned that we’re on a different page from Department X about how long these projects take. Can we talk about how we might be able to address this?” (Note that this language puts you and your manager on the same side, rather than attributing the problem to your manager herself.)

5. If your manager pre-dates you at the company, ask if your predecessors were able to meet similar deadlines and, if so, what they might have done differently than you. You might find that there are shortcuts that you don’t realize your boss wouldn’t mind you taking. You might be aiming for more perfection than she is, and she might be willing to trade perfection for speed. You won’t know if you don’t ask.

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6. Finally, consider with an open mind whether the deadlines might not really be so crazy. It’s entirely possible that yours is a company with chronically unrealistic deadlines and expectations, but it might also be a company that strives to be exceptional and thus gets things done faster than industry averages. If you’re used to a slower pace, it might take a while to get used to the warp speed environment of your high-performing employer (and if you never do, that might point to a bad fit). It’s very hard to evaluate this objectively when you’re struggling, but try. Look around at your colleagues. Are they struggling too?

This heart-to-heart with yourself, combined with a big-picture conversation with your manager, should give you an idea of whether you’re going to be able to resolve the issue in a way you can be happy with.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.