We’ve all been there. The project is due at the end of the day, and you are hurrying to get it done on time. You came in early to get started and skipped lunch. Now, the end of the day is fast approaching, and you’re still not finished. I can tell you two facts about this situation, having gone through it many times.
- It is very stressful.
- It is almost always avoidable.
Note, I said almost. There will be times that you are hustling to complete a last-minute project because it got dumped on you at the last minute.
But this should be the exception, not the rule.
If this happens continuously, you have a lousy manager, and you need to do everything in your power to change them. Either change their behavior or change jobs. Their lack of management skills should not endanger your sanity or well-being. I used to work with a person like this. On business trips, she prided herself in arriving at the departure gate just as they were closing the door.
There are people out there who love to start fires so that they can be seen putting them out. Or not. They will eventually crash and burn and take anyone they can with them. Or let you crash and burn so they can get credit for ridding the company of a bad employee — you.
But most of the time, it is our lack of planning that leads to this behavior. It seems to be ingrained in our DNA. We learned this ‘skill’ for lack of a better word early on and never broke the cycle. How often in grade school did you ignore homework until the last minute? How many times in high school did you let a term paper slide until the night before it was due? How many nights did you stay up in college cramming for a final exam?
We learn to do this early and often, and the habit stays with us throughout our lives. Why? I have no idea. Hopefully, there is a psychologist out there reading this that can shed some light. For me, I’m not so much interested in why it happens as how to stop it. So, I’ll jump straight to the spoiler.
Just stop it.
Easier said than done, right? Well, just like anything worthwhile in life, it takes planning. And like any other skill, it takes practice.
Let’s go back to our late-arriving flyer for a minute. Of course, this was the time before airlines wanted you to sit around the gate for two hours, but the example still illustrates the process. Her planning, if you’re going to call it that, began with the flight time. The flight leaves at 6 am, so I need to arrive at 5:55. Her plan began and ended with that goal.
My plan began with the desire to arrive at the gate no later than 5:30. In each step of the process, security, parking, transportation, etc., I always included time for worst-case scenarios. How often have you sat in traffic trying to get to the airport, stressed out over missing your flight? I don’t like traffic any more than you do, but it’s okay. I planned for it.
Did you get what I said there?
Sitting in traffic was part of the plan.
No traffic? No problem. I get there early. How often have you said or heard, “There was a wreck on the highway, and I almost missed my flight.”
How dumb is that? You spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on a ticket. Your job or vacation depends on making that flight, and you don’t plan for something as predictable as traffic? I’m not asking you to consider extra time in case of a meteor strike. It’s traffic. Of course, it will be there.
So, how does this tie into our last-minute project?
TL;DR Plan to arrive early and account for traffic.
Monday morning, you are given a project that is due Friday. So, you start building your plan. First, you put the due date on the calendar for Friday in big red letters and circle it, right?
Wrong. That’s when the flight leaves. You want to be at the gate early. On your schedule, the project is due on Thursday.
Now, fill in the rest of the plan, backing up from there and accounting for traffic jams. You can use a dedicated project management system, but I always found them more work than they were worth. But you do you.
I used MS Word and Excel to build the plan and then entered the steps and timelines into my task management system. Here are the steps I took.
First, I brought up a blank document in Word and switched to Outline View. Then, I entered the significant steps. In a short-term project like this, I would usually start with days since I only had four.
You will notice Friday isn’t even on the schedule. Why? Because hopefully, we are done by then, and while everyone else is scurrying around, I’ll have a nice long lunch.
Then, using the outlining tools, I break it down into the smallest possible increments.
- First Thing
a. First thing with the first thing
- Baby step 1, etc.
Once that was done, I copied and pasted the whole thing into the first column of an Excel spreadsheet. Across the top, I put my timeline. Depending on the project, the total time to completion, and the steps’ granularity, the columns might be weeks, days, half-days, or hours.
Then I laid out all the steps, and the time it would take to complete them, allowing for dependencies, and traffic jams, which usually meant waiting for someone else. But no matter the timeline, the completion date for the project was at least the day before the due date. And more often than not, that’s when the job got done.
And if I found myself on Wednesday, sitting in traffic, waiting on something to get done, that’s okay; I planned for this.
The more complex the project is, the more moving parts it has, and the number of people involved gets more complicated.
But if you start with the premise that the completion date is the day before the due date, and add in time for contingencies, you should be able to eliminate most, if not all, of that last-minute stress.