Sam Naser

Deadlines and discipline

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Ah, deadlines. Both the lifeblood and the bane of a journalist’s existence. If they didn’t exist, this article would never see the light of day. You see, we journalists are a procrastinating lot. We’re perpetually one lead, one phone call or one more hour’s work away from being ready to print. In fact, some of us are even brazen enough to boast that we work best on deadlines. Still, you can often find us huddled over the keyboard at some ungodly hour of the night, nursing a pot of coffee as we scuttle to put a story together and pray to the editing gods that it somehow makes sense.

In the end, though, we tend to make our deadlines. But there have been times that put our hasta mañana convictions to the test. Like when the editor cranes her neck around your cubicle and just as you begin to ask yourself what you can owe this visit to, that “deer in headlights” expression overcomes your face. That’s because your memory just jolted back to this morning when you bumped into each other in the break room. You know, when you promised to have that long overdue column on her desk before lunch? There’s just one small problem. You haven’t finished it yet.

It’s times like these where we take a step back and ask ourselves if we’re due for a time management makeover. Luckily, there are techniques that help you hone your reliability skills to perfection. And regardless of your industry, region or niche, if there’s one skill you should focus on to set yourself apart from the crowd, it’s your reliability. And the best way to prove you’re reliable is to meet any and every deadline thrown your way, whether it’s one set by your boss or one set by you – directly to your clients.

But how do you go about delivering a finished product on time, every time? Here are a few tips for any obstacle that might get in the way of ensuring your reliability is sacrosanct.

Back to the basics

Forgetting to complete a project or failing to deliver on all of the various components involved is a sure bet for putting your reliability in doubt. That’s when a good old-fashioned to-do list comes in handy. Breaking down your to-do list into easy-to-digest pieces and approaching them step by step allows you to stay on top of all the project deliverables. It’s all about avoiding the temptation to revolve your entire project around a single deadline down the road. That’s way too far ahead and will likely result in a stressful cram session just before the due date. Instead, split your projects up into weekly or daily goals to knock them out one by one with these easy steps.

Know what you’re getting into: Be sure you’re in sync with your client(s) or boss on their expectations for the project.

Put it in writing: Draft a project plan that lists what steps will need to be completed for each part of the project.

Bite-sized pieces: Now that you have a due date as well as a basic outline of what you’ll need to deliver, start to divide it into mini-milestones. Work backwards from the end and create mini-checkpoints to measure progress along the way. Consider keeping a dry erase board to itemize each mini-task. Or, consider investing in some task-management software like Things (for Macintosh, $49.95) or Google Calendar (web-based, free).

Expect surprises: Information you may need to go back and ask for from a client or added variables can throw a spoke in your progress and change your workload. Allow some extra padding time for each mini-deadline so you’ll have enough flexibility to accommodate changes. And if you fail to meet one of your mini-milestones, don’t just ignore it and move on. Instead, take a look at your calendar to redistribute your work to make up for it.

One step at a time: If you’re taking on a large assignment, it can sometimes be difficult to get started when you’re overly focused on the finish line. This is one situation where tunnel vision can be a good thing. Forget about the big picture for a second and focus on methodically hammering out each individual task in the timeline you created.

Fill them in: Keep the lines of communication with your employer or clients open and effective. Come to an agreement with your manager or client(s) as to the preferred frequency of status updates on your progress (weekly, monthly, et cetera) as well as the delivery method (e-mail, in-person).

The weak link syndrome: Tied down because Joe in accounting still hasn’t given you those numbers you need? Silence may be golden, but not when your professional reputation hangs in the balance. If you’re not receiving the adequate support to complete the tasks assigned to you in a timely and efficient manner, you need to speak up before it’s too late.  That’s not to say you should rat Joe out to el jefe for not pulling his own weight. A better solution is to prevent the situation from happening in the first place by looking ahead to upcoming tasks well before they’re due. This will allow you to keep the co-workers you will depend on for your project in updated on your future needs and deadlines from the get-go.

Setting unrealistic deadlines

Sometimes, either you or your management will agree to an overly ambitious undertaking and pluck a date out of thin air, and then cling onto that date as though it were gospel. Then you work like a frantic madman to meet the deadline, putting in hellacious hours, with the only constant being that the deadline doesn’t budge. All of this because a deadline was arbitrarily established without the foresight of how much effort required to complete it. To avoid this predicament, you’ll have to force yourself or your management to justify your deadlines from the onset. Poor deadlines beget poor work, and it’s better to speak up before committing to an unrealistic deadline.

Failure to prioritize

Frustrated by a manager who keeps adding “urgent” project after urgent project onto your already bloated workplate? Then it’s time to meet with your manager to prioritize. This is where you should also discuss how much time you’ll require for each project. Once you’re on the same page, you’ll have a clear understanding of the priority and due date with which to treat each assignment based on your manager’s needs. This process will also help your manager ferret out the deadlines that need to be moved or projects that need to be de-prioritized to accommodate more pressing matters.

And remember, if you find yourself over-committing to too many projects, it’s OK to say “no.” If you already have a pristine track record of delivering your deadlines, then you’re more than likely the first person management approaches regarding additional assignments. Flattering? Sure, it is, but it also makes it that much more critical for you to set realistic boundaries and meet with your manager to discuss priorities. And a raise.

Time management tips

Identify the problem: Track your daily activities to figure out your time wasters. Is too much time spent checking your e-mail, chatting with coworkers or browsing the ‘Net interfering with your work?

Set goals: So, you tracked it and it turns out that you spend an hour a day reading personal e-mails. Now, it’s time to think about an endgame so you can start to change your behavior. Think about what you really want to accomplish.

Split up the day: Do you spend too much time even with business e-mail correspondence? Then schedule your day so that the first hour and last hour of the work day is for e-mailing, and work on projects and schedule meetings in between.

Give yourself a time limit: Most time-sinks would take up your entire workday if you allowed them to. Instead, set aside a fixed time of the day for each task and stick to the routine as much as possible.

How to eliminate distractions

Turn your e-mail notifications off: Some people say they just can’t live without their Blackberry, but if your phone beeps every time you get a new e-mail, you may have to learn to live without it for a while. Turn off notifications while you’re at work. If this is impossible, resist personal messages and reply later.

Restrict your Internet: This one is only for the weak-willed. There’s an abundance of free web-based scripts out there like Time to Go (for Firefox browser, free). It sends you away from time-wasting websites (you know which ones they are) after a specified time so you don’t get too carried away. When you’re close to finishing the allotted time, the countdown starts.

Do not disturb: When you need to be in the zone, consider placing a “do not disturb” sign on your office door. This will let your co-workers know that you really need to focus during the times you do have it up. But use only as necessary and try not to be the guy who leave it on all day, every day.

Visual clutter: For some, workspace clutter can cloud your ability to focus. If this describes you, take some time to clear your workspace. Take unnecessary documents down from your walls, shelve the scattered papers on your desk and clear up the icon clutter on your computer’s desktop. Turn off all notifications that might pop up on your computer and only leave open the program you need for the task at hand.

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