How To Be The Person Who Never Misses A Deadline

Missing deadlines is a bad habit that’s easy to fall into, but it hurts your professional reputation. Here’s how to change it.

I’ll be the first one to admit that in certain areas of my life, I have fallen into a pattern of lateness. In fact, as I type these very words, this piece is late, and I can almost feel my editor’s fingers stretching toward her keyboard to send me an all-too-kind email, the heart of which will be, “Yo Kelsey, get your ish together!” Missing deadlines is upsetting, frustrating, moronic, inconsiderate . . . and all too easy. I remember the tipping point in college. It’s 4 a.m., you’re hustling to finish a paper for your 8 a.m. class, and as the effects of the 4-Hour Energy you took at midnight begin to fade, the thought creeps in: “What would actually happen if I didn’t turn this in on time?” Unfortunately, you quickly realize the answer is most likely nothing. At worse, you’re down half a letter grade, and we all know how vital grades are (HAHA).


But now that I feel those same bad habits slipping into my (semi-)real (semi-)adult life, it’s a huge problem. Being late doesn’t just hurt my own meaningless grades anymore, it inconveniences others and infringes upon their valuable time. I am furious when a friend shows up late to a planned meeting (a veritable epidemic of our generation), so why should turning an article in late be different? It shouldn’t. And since I am certain others suffer from this problem as well, here are some ways we can work to remedy our bad habits together.

1. Understand That You Can’t Do Everything At Once

This is the alpha and omega of my punctuality problem: I want to say yes to everything, so I end up overcommitted. Professional organizer Christina Hidek sees this all the time. “I’ve found that with professionals who are educated and smart, there’s a tendency to think that they can do it all, and this leads to people trying to do more than time can really allow for, causing lateness,” she says. Whenever you find yourself wanting to say yes to something you know you don’t have time for right now, think of this quote from Cosmo legend Kate White, “You don’t have to do everything at once. Think of yourself as a serial achiever—you’ve got time!”

[Related: How To Stop Yourself From Overscheduling]


2. Stop Underestimating How Long Tasks Will Take

If overcommitting is the alpha and omega of my lateness, underestimating is the entire remainder of the Greek alphabet. The problem is, I’m not lying through my teeth when I say, “I’ll have it done by 7 p.m.”—I genuinely believe that I will. This is because I consistently underestimate how long it will take me to do something (or in a less flattering version of events, overestimating my own ability). “Start keeping track of your time, looking at how long tasks actually took to complete versus how long you thought it would take,” Hidek says. “Once you see the time difference, make an adjustment where needed to allow for enough time.” Consider it done.

3. Be Honest With Yourself About Why You’re Late

If these first two aren’t your particular problem, be honest about what is. Sue Cook, counselor at Family TLC, offered some possible explanations: “Are you in denial, thinking it is not a problem? Are you too busy? Do you work to deadlines that are unrealistic? Are you easily distracted? Do you break your promise to yourself? Once you know why you are late, then you can implement the ‘how’ to stop it.” For example, Hidek adds, if you’re late getting out the door in the morning because you’re rushing around, get more done the night before—shower, clothes, hair, breakfast, and so on.

4. Set A Personal Consequence For Being Late

According to Steve Levinson, PhD, clinical psychologist and president of Behavioral Dynamics, the habit of being late is cultivated by a lack of consequences. “The key to breaking a late habit is to take deliberate, specific, and creative action to make it really feel necessary to be on time,” he says. He gives a rather extreme example of someone who consistently puts off his tax returns until the last minute. To be more prompt, the guy writes an inflammatory letter to the IRS that would get him in trouble, seals and addresses it, and gives it to a friend with strict instruction to mail it on March 1—unless he replaces the envelope with his completed tax return. That’ll do, that’ll do. It doesn’t need to something that dramatic, of course, but find a way to hold yourself to the deadlines you set.


[Related: 5 Ways To Control Bad Habits For A Successful Career]

5. Start Working On A Project As Soon As You Receive It

Time management consultant Rashelle Isip advises her clients to start working on an assignment the very day it’s received. “This might sound a bit excessive, but it eliminates the possibility of you procrastinating,” Isip says. “You can start the momentum for your project by working on a small, actionable task: conduct basic online research, set up a file folder or notes section on your computer, brainstorm project ideas, or thoroughly review the details of the assignment.” You don’t have to make a major dent on day one, but even a small jump start can pay huge dividends. As for small tasks, do them immediately. If someone sends an email that requires a brief response, just do it. “Things that take five minutes shouldn’t be flagged for a later time,” says Kali Rogers, CEO and founder of Blush. “They should be put away now so that you have time to do your bigger projects later.”

[Related: Time Management For The Unmanageable]


6. Trick Yourself Into An Earlier Deadline

Many experts advise setting “personal due dates” that are a few days earlier than the true due date. It’s a great way to allow yourself a buffer period should the project take longer than you expected (as always) or something else go wrong. “Deadlines need to be seen as an internal motive, not an external motive,” says Rogers. “The second we stop relying on others to give us boundaries for when things need to be done is the moment we start getting things done at the right time for us. External motives can always be justified—’they don’t really need it’ or ‘maybe they won’t notice that it hasn’t been turned in.’ But internal motivators don’t have qualifiers—we set them ourselves and we have decided we are going to get it done regardless of other’s timelines.”

[Related: 6 Tips To Curb Feeling Overwhelmed At Work]

7. Break Assignments Into Smaller Tasks

“One of the main reasons people are late with their work is that they try to finish a project in one sitting,” says Isip. “Break up that enormous project into smaller, more manageable projects, and things won’t seem as overwhelming. Then, assign specific chunks of time in your calendar to complete the above tasks.” Isip advises setting a timer and working on the project for a specific amount of time every day, whether that is five, 30, or 60 minutes. You’ll be finished before you know it (and if you’ve planned appropriately, well before your deadline).


8. Build Your Timeliness Toolbox

Thankfully, we live in a world in which there are thousands of tools to help you keep track of your shit. “With the right toolbox, you can surprise your colleagues with your ability to constantly stay on top of everything,” says Sara Kyle, founder and managing director at Vault Collective. Kyle suggests using your Gmail calendar as much as possible, setting up reminders leading up to meetings, calls, and events. For unexpected bottlenecks, she recommends Asana, and for efficient emailing, Boomerang. If you’re keeping track of a lot of people or a lot of content, try a content management system like Streak. “No one has to know about all of your secret weapons, but you’ll make yourself indispensable by being the one that remembers everything and nudges them along,” she says. Put the time in to find whatever tools work best for you. Just make sure you aren’t using so many programs that it complicates your life and exacerbates the problem.

[Related: 4 Reasons To Never Be Late]

I’ll leave you with this final thought from Kyle: “Don’t view timeliness as a burden—think of it as an opportunity to stand out from your competition. Remember that time is everyone’s most valuable asset, not just yours. Being respectful of other people’s time will help you gain respect . . . and your reputation is everything.” Let’s fix this guys, before it gets any worse.


Related: Are Work Habits Ruining Your Productivity?

This article originally appeared on Levo and is reprinted with permission.