Deadlines are important, but sometimes you just can’t deliver work on time. Missing deadlines never feels good, but understanding why it happens is the first step. In this article, we outline common causes of missed deadlines and how to avoid them—plus how to be proactive when you know you’re going to need an extension.
Nobody wants to miss a deadline. But delays happen despite our best efforts, with workers missing 15% of their deadlines due to factors like an onslaught of meetings, uncertain priorities, and unclear processes. And while pushing due dates never feels good, sometimes it’s unavoidable.
Missing deadlines is stressful, but the solution isn’t to get rid of them entirely. As a manager, the best thing you can do is help your team set due dates they can realistically meet without burning themselves out. Then if work gets overwhelming and missing deadlines is inevitable, you can help team members prioritize, divide, and conquer their most important tasks.
Deadlines exist for a reason. They help work flow smoothly by setting expectations around when tasks should be completed, so your team can accurately plan and organize work. They also motivate stakeholders to finish assignments, so your project can keep moving forward without getting stuck on a certain task.
Missing too many deadlines is a leading cause of project failure. It can:
Cause delays and put projects at risk.
Disrupt team and cross-functional workflows.
Cause bottlenecks and block other teams from being able to complete their work.
Erode trust over time, especially if stakeholders feel like they can’t rely on your team to finish tasks.
Degrade team morale.
Deadlines should help your team take control over their work. They shouldn’t make work feel overwhelming or out of control, which can happen when stakeholders set due dates without your team’s input. Ultimately, deadlines are most effective when you set them collaboratively—especially when cross-functional stakeholders assign deliverables to your team. Agreeing on deadlines helps you set realistic due dates that your team can actually meet, so you’re not constantly reacting and scrambling to finish requests.
When that’s not possible, or your team is staffed to support a specific business function, it helps when everyone is aligned on your team and company objectives. That way, stakeholders can prioritize truly important work that supports overarching business goals (instead of swamping your inbox with endless “high priority” tasks).
Having too many unrealistic deadlines takes away your team’s agency and control over their workload—a driving cause of overwork and burnout. Team members who miss deadlines often feel like they’re constantly failing and disappointing others—even if they’re completing a reasonable amount of work. In the long run, this can drag down team morale.Create an Eisenhower matrix template
Contrary to popular belief, missing deadlines isn’t always caused by bad work habits or productivity issues. There are lots of factors that can cause you and your team to miss deadlines, including:
Unclear priorities: Not understanding what’s most important and what you should work on first.
Lack of planning: Not taking the time to work backwards from a deadline and plan what you need to accomplish by when.
Improper estimation: Not understanding how long certain tasks will take.
Competing priorities: Having too many high-priority tasks on your team’s plate at once.
Unrealistic deadlines: Last-minute requests, tight turnaround times, and similar situations in which your team can’t realistically complete work on time.
Unforeseen roadblocks: Incidents that force you to pause work—like software bugs, team members leaving, or other unexpected snags.
Uncommitted stakeholders: Having trouble getting others to complete tasks on time, especially if you can’t start work until they’re finished.
Lack of focus time: Having too many meetings and not enough time to actually get things done.
Preventing missed deadlines is about more than brute-force productivity. Instead of just trying to work faster and get more done, it’s better to consider the underlying issues contributing to the problem. That way, you can deliver work on time without overworking and burning your team out in the process.
Here’s what to do:
Clear priorities help your team understand what work is most important, so they can tackle critical assignments first before moving on to other tasks. This is particularly helpful when there’s a lot on your team’s plate and you can’t get everything done right away. Instead of scrambling to finish everything, see if you can push out due dates for lower priority tasks—or delegate them to another team.
Not sure where to start? Here’s how to clarify your priorities:
Connect daily work to goals: When you understand how everyday tasks ladder up into team and business goals, it’s easier to see what’s important and what’s not. For example, it makes sense to prioritize an image optimization project if it contributes to a company goal to improve your website loading speed. To free up working hours, you can deprioritize a less important task to organize your internal team documentation. This doesn’t mean you won’t work on lower-priority tasks—it just means you can push out delivery dates to give your team extra time.
Prioritize your to-do list: Prioritization works best when you do it every day. Try creating an Eisenhower matrix to organize tasks by urgency and importance. This prioritization technique helps you separate assignments into four buckets: Do, delegate, schedule, and delete.
Consistently meeting deadlines takes planning, and it’s hard to plan if you don’t know what work is coming up and how long it will take. To get the clarity you need, organize all of your projects and deadlines in one central location—so you can see at-a-glance what you’re working on, what’s coming up, and how long your team has to produce each deliverable.
Deadlines shouldn’t be arbitrary. Instead, team members should understand why you chose specific due dates so they have enough context (and motivation) to get things done on time. If your team knows that deadlines aren’t real, there’s less pressure to meet them—and over time, team members might start disregarding due dates entirely.
Due dates always have a purpose, even if there isn’t a real deadline you need to meet. They can also help you achieve team goals and milestones—like writing a certain number of articles per month. Even if there’s no external pressure to publish each article on time, creating deadlines helps your team plan their own schedules and consistently move work forward.
If you want to consistently meet deadlines, you need to make sure you’re budgeting enough time to get things done. When setting due dates, it’s easy to fall victim to the “planning fallacy”—a psychological phenomenon in which people underestimate the time it will take to complete a task, even if they know that similar tasks took longer in the past. Instead of picking a realistic deadline based on our experience, we think “this time” things will be different and we can work faster.
The first step to avoid the planning fallacy is awareness—if you know it exists, you can be more self-aware when it happens. In addition, it’s always better to budget a bit more time than you think you’ll need.
Project dependencies are tasks that rely on the completion of another task. For example, app developers need to conduct user testing before finalizing a product design. One assignment needs to be done before the other can start—so if the first task is delayed, the second one also needs to be pushed back.
When planning your project timeline, it’s important to understand dependencies so you can make sure tasks will be completed in the right order. That way, you can avoid bottlenecks and keep work moving consistently along.
In today’s fast-paced work environment, distractions are the norm rather than the exception. Notifications from different apps like email and Slack rule the day—in fact, over half of workers feel like they have to respond to notifications immediately and over a third feel overwhelmed by persistent pings.
You pay a mental cost every time you check notifications, and it can take upwards of 20 minutes to regain momentum after an interruption. That means if you check Slack three times over the course of an hour, you may not be able to get any significant work done.
Try these techniques to help your team limit distractions and improve focus:
Encourage your team to use do-not-disturb modes for communication apps like Slack and email.
Put your phone in a drawer or out of sight so you won’t be tempted to check messages or social media. Research shows that just seeing your phone nearby can drain focus.
Schedule calendar blocks to encourage flow state and focused work, so people know you may be slow to respond.
Conduct a meeting audit to eliminate unnecessary meetings and free up calendar space for focus time.
To meet deadlines, you need to be able to manage your time. If you or someone on your team struggles with procrastination, try one of these time management strategies to help stay on task:
The Pomodoro Technique: Schedule 25-minute work sessions and 5-minute breaks.
Time blocking: Schedule out every single part of your day.
Timeboxing: Create a “timebox,” during which you aim to finish a specific task within a certain time frame.
Eat the frog: Tackle your most difficult task first before you do any other work.
The Pareto Principle: Focus on tasks with the most impact to maximize the return on your time.
The Getting Things Done (GTD) method: Write down everything you need to do in one place, so you can free up mental energy and prioritize your work.
Missing deadlines happens to everyone from time to time. Instead of beating yourself up or placing blame, encourage team members to follow these steps. This helps you move forward, proactively deal with the situation, and minimize the impact for stakeholders.
Say something as soon as you think you’ll miss the deadline. The more advance notice you can provide, the better. This gives stakeholders time to adjust their timeline to accommodate the delay.
Explain what happened. It’s ok to provide an explanation when you miss a deadline, but try to keep it brief so you can stay focused on solutions rather than placing blame.
Provide solutions. Think about what you can offer to make up for the inconvenience of missing a deadline. For example, you could turn in a rougher version of what you’ve completed so far or extend the deadline for a more polished deliverable.
Evaluate your priorities and propose a new (realistic) deadline. Take stock of everything on your plate. When can you realistically expect to complete the assignment given everything else you’re working on? Setting a new deadline helps you (and stakeholders) plan how to move forward, as opposed to constantly worrying about an overdue task or just rushing to get it done as soon as possible.
Update your project timeline and any dependencies. If your missed deadline is part of a larger project, adjust other tasks to make sure there’s still enough time to complete everything. For example, if someone is waiting on you to start a task, they may need extra time if you miss your deadline.
Don’t beat yourself up. Everyone misses deadlines once in a while. The important thing is to learn from your experience and change your approach for next time.
Deadlines aren’t your enemy, they’re an organizational tool. Setting clear and realistic deadlines can help you take control of your team’s work and keep projects running smoothly. That means instead of adding stress to your life, due dates can help provide structure and keep everyone on the same page.Create an Eisenhower matrix template