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Deadlines and How to Set Them

Deadlines are supposed to motivate us. They have the power to force freelancers to focus on the task at hand, to keep them away from the shiny lights of the Internet and to restrict their attention to the work that needs to be completed. They increase productivity, allowing more work to be done in less time and, ideally, for more money, and they also ensure that the tasks are actually completed. When you have to put your pencil down when the alarm bell rings, the project doesn’t last forever without ever reaching its end.

And sometimes, clients do actually need the work at set times. A delay at your end can create blockages along their production system costing them money in lost income or increasing the cost of the product. That’s bad enough for them, and when it gives you a reputation for causing problems, it’s bad for you too.

And yet, setting a deadline is about as easy as setting a quote. It requires a clear knowledge of the complexities of the task and the work required to complete it, and an understanding of your own levels of productivity.

Know Your Job and Yourself

Both of those should come with experience. The more you’ve worked in an industry, the more you become aware of the actual time it takes to design, code and debug a website, produce a logo or build a simple iPhone app. You’ll know that tasks that sound easy — such as debugging a program or cropping an image accurately — can actually take far longer than they seem. Clients might not recognize those time limits but experienced buyers will have heard the predictions before, and inexperienced ones will soon discover how long their projects actually take. Part of learning a job is understanding the tasks it includes.

And another part is understanding yourself. Different workers and freelancers do have different levels of productivity. Not all copywriters are capable of churning out more than a couple of thousand words a day; others will hit that benchmark by lunch and press on towards 4000 before they tear their fingers away from their smoking keyboards. The more work you can get done, the more income you can earn, and while deadlines can help to ensure that that productivity is at its maximum, there’s always going to be a level beyond which you just can’t produce. It doesn’t matter how much you’d like to believe you can produce an MMORPG in a weekend, it’s not going to happen and setting that kind of deadline is only going to result in disappointment.

The Bigger the Project, the Softer the Deadline

Even when you understand both the job and yourself though, deadlines can sometimes be missed, and that’s particularly true for long projects. Telling a client with a quick job that might be completed within a couple of hours that he’ll have it by the following morning is easy enough. But when a large project stretches for months, and the target is so much further away, a small miscalculation in your productivity prediction can result in a big miss. Start to fall behind and you’ll feel you’ve got plenty of time to catch up — right up until the deadline is upon you, and you realize that you don’t.

And that’s if your calculations about yourself are slightly wrong. It’s also possible that your understanding of the project and yourself are accurate, but your predictions about the rest of the world are off. The longer the project lasts, the greater the chances that something will happen to throw things off-kilter. Even a short cold — something statistically likely over the space of three or four months  — can kick an on-time project a couple of days behind schedule. Forgotten holidays, family strife and technical breakdowns all mean that a project that everyone expects to finish at a certain date ends up taking longer than expected.

The solution is obvious in theory but difficult in practice. Consider how long you believe a project will take then add perhaps ten percent to the time and you should leave room for those unseen mishaps to do their worst. But the Boyle’s Law of the workplace — that work has a tendency to expand to fill the time available — will quickly squeeze out those spare days. All you really end up doing is proving that tight deadlines really do improve productivity.

So if you can’t leave room for mistakes in your own predictions and you can’t add days for unforeseen events, what can you do to increase the chances that you’ll hit the deadline for a long-term project?

Perhaps the best thing is to talk to the client. Explain that the longer the project continues, the softer the deadline needs to be to take into account those bumps on the long road. Your own deadline will remain solid, giving you the productivity you want, but the client should have contingency plans in case things happen to push the presentation beyond the delivery date. The alternative, to tighten the pressure towards the end of the project, is as likely to result in a squeeze on the quality as force the work to be delivered on time.

And understand too, that a missed deadline isn’t rare. Little more than three months before the opening of the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, 60 percent of the venues were incomplete. It’s already become clear that renovations to parts of the London Underground won’t be ready in time for the 2012 Olympics, and that’s still two years away. No one though is saying that the London Olympics will be a failure because the Northern line won’t be running faster.

Deadlines are a vital part of the freelance business. They’re as much a part of accepting work as estimating quotes and knowing how to do the job. But just as freelancers need to know what they’re doing, so outsourcers too have a responsibility to the project to expect delays and build in contingency plans. Deadlines might be great ways to inspire productivity and ensure that the work is done but they also need to be softer than they look.

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