What to Do When You Know You Can't Meet a Deadline

It's easy to drop a ball in this busy season, writes Natalie Lundsteen, who offers some advice for how to best handle the situation.

September 23, 2019
 
 
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Fall is my favorite time of year. But something about September stresses me out, and I bet I'm not the only one working in academe who feels this way. This is the season when I am most likely to miss a deadline or let a colleague or collaborator down because my professional plate is not just full -- it's collapsing like a cheap paper plate at an end-of-summer barbecue.

I can think of many reasons for being overloaded this time of year. My email Inbox Archive of Shame is at peak volume with messages still lurking, unanswered, from the spring, which feels like only a few weeks ago. I'm still trying to finish up items on my summer to-do list, realizing how few of those projects I didn't complete (next year, more research and writing!).

Then along comes the kickoff of the academic year, with the many workshops, meetings and tasks my office does to support Ph.D. career development. We attend orientation events for our new graduate students, along with club and organization kickoff meetings, reminding students and postdocs that career thinking matters in every year of graduate school, and there's a lot of activity around the launch of the annual academic job market. There's also the excitement of training new student leaders, peer advisers and teaching assistants, all of whom are eager to get going with endless career and professional development events and ideas, which means meetings, meetings and more meetings.

I love my work, but with so much activity all happening at one time, I find myself having to say a regretful no to things I would really like to do. I can also come perilously close to dropping the ball on important deadlines and responsibilities: “Conference program proposals are due this week? I thought it was end of the month. Wait, it is the end of the month!”

It doesn't happen often, but all of us will drop the ball at work at some point. However, it's not the end of the world! Author James Patterson wrote, “Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls. The balls are called work, family, health, friends and integrity. And you're keeping all of them in the air. But one day, you finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls … are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.”

So I'm continually reminding myself this autumn that, at times, I simply won’t be able to get everything done at work that is required of me and that it's OK to be human and fallible. But I also know that you should do certain things to minimize reputational damage when coming close to the precipice of what can seem like professional failure.

Take control of being overwhelmed (before it goes too far). When you feel one of the balls you are juggling is about to slip, first of all, don't ignore that feeling. Get out ahead of the situation by taking a few deep breaths -- good decisions rarely happen when you are anxious -- and then assessing what's going on. Remember, you are only human, with many imperfections, and everyone makes miscalculations and mistakes. Take a little time to clear your head and banish the fear of failure as best you can. Then figure out when you will be able to finish and what you need to do the task right (or as well as possible at that point). Of course, situations will arise when other people cause you to miss a deadline, but this advice is primarily for times when you alone can’t get to a task or responsibility, and the reins are firmly in your hands.

Remember not all urgent activities are important. Prioritize by considering all the tasks and responsibilities you have at that point in time, and ask yourself what you can drop, ignore or postpone in order to get to the most pressing deadlines. I find it helpful to use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix as a framework for determining a hierarchy of my responsibilities, especially when I am starting to feel overwhelmed with tasks and looming deadlines. Fall back on whatever time-management techniques work best for you, and also keep in mind that graduate students might have a somewhat warped view of important priorities -- see this advice on reframing your view of timing and tasks while in graduate school.

You can also ask for help and guidance in figuring out how to prioritize. Who can you depend on to support you, give advice or ask for help? Don't forget graduate career development professionals can advise on many aspects of your career, not only what occupational paths to take but also how to handle the detours and potential stumbles along your career journey.

Give early warning. Don't let a deadline pass before you reach out. A friend says, “I disappoint people as early as possible,” which is not a reflection on his personality, but his way of making sure he lets people know ASAP when he cannot deliver as promised. Get ahead of your stress by thinking proactively. Give as much notice as possible to your team or manager, and in that notice, give a time frame for how much longer you expect the task to take and a brief explanation of the basic facts.

Make sure your explanations are appropriate timely and relevant. “The data analysis took two more days than I anticipated,” “We are evacuating this week because of Hurricane Dorian” and “I've had to go out of town suddenly because of a family health matter” are all suitable excuses.

Don't ignore the situation, and try not to cause anyone waiting on your action to reach out to you with an email that asks, “So, where are you on that project that you agreed to have completed three days ago?” It's so much more professional to get out ahead of things and admit responsibility. Most people truly are forgiving and understanding if they have advance notice.

Try to limit the damage, and be honest. Once you know you're going to miss a deadline, take ownership of your mistake. Do your best to figure out what the manager or team needs from you and why, and strategize how you can support that need. Consider and solve potential problems or concerns that may result from your underperformance. Give options such as providing half the work you've done or whatever you have available at that point.

Some deadlines, such as job or grant applications and conference proposal submissions, are probably immutable. But some deadlines that seem impossibly fixed might have some flexibility. You won't know until you ask, but use your best judgment on whether you should or could even ask for an extension, especially with deadlines that involve more than just a small team of people. My general rule of thumb is if there's a human I can contact to ask for an exception or extension, I'll give it a go.

One great practical resource I've found is career writer Kat Boogaard's templates for emails asking for deadline extensions or task support. I usually query my colleagues and collaborators in these types of situations with honesty and frankness: “How can I help mitigate this situation I’ve caused?” or “Will it cause stress for you if I get this document to you on Friday instead of Thursday?” Apologize and be grateful for the understanding, and promise it won't happen again (which means don't let it happen again!). If 99 percent of the time you're reliable and trustworthy, this is only a blip on the radar, and you can recover your reputation. Recognize, however, that it could take time to build back professional trust, but your actions and dependability going forward will be the best way to illustrate that.

A final word of advice that could be a silver lining to missing a deadline or dropping that ball: you can always use this situation to answer one of those “Tell me about a time things did not go as you planned” interview questions!

Bio

Natalie Lundsteen is assistant dean for career and professional development at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. She is a member and currently serves as president of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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