How to Set Realistic Project Deadlines

Written By: Alison Green
September 1, 2015
4 min read

Although setting realistic deadlines is only one element of the success of a project, getting it wrong can derail the whole thing. If you set deadlines that are too tight, you risk under-delivering and stressing your team and yourself out. If they’re too loose, you’ll end up wasting time and not moving work forward as quickly as you could.

Here are six steps to setting project deadlines that are realistic without being overly loose, and to ensure you and your team meet them.

1. Start by breaking the project down into chunks, so that you have a list of all the steps that need to be taken before the work is completed. Then, figure out how long each step will take and set a sub-deadline for each. This sounds obvious to people who plan on projects this way, but there are a surprising number of people who don’t – and who instead just try to estimate how long the whole thing will take, rather than looking at its component steps (and then end up frustrated when they need more time).

2. Think about what you’ve seen delay projects in the past. Does your director always take a week to review proofs? Does she tend to have last-minute changes that take time to implement? Assume that may happen again this time, and if at all possible, build time for those occurrences into your timeline.

3. Think about what else will be going on at the same time. You might only need a day to complete a particular task, but if it falls in the middle of a particularly hectic period with lots of conflicting priorities, you might need a week or more. You can’t create a realistic schedule in a vacuum; you want to take into account all the other things that will be going on at the same time.

4. Get input from others. If you’re setting deadlines for someone else, or that rely on someone else doing a piece of the work before you can do yours, check with them to make sure that the timelines you’re using are reasonable. You don’t want to discover weeks into your project schedule that the person you’re relying on to give you data is on vacation the week you assumed they could work on it, or that they have three bigger priorities that week, or that you’ve simply underestimated the amount of time it will take for them to pull together what you need.

5. Once your project schedule is underway, if it’s a big project schedule yourself some interim check-ins. This is especially important if you’re relying on other pieces for part of it; you don’t want to discover the day Jane’s data is due that she got caught up in a higher priority or was out sick last week so has pushed all her deadlines back or has simply forgotten about what she promised you. If you check in as the work is in progress, you’ll give yourself a better chance of avoiding these types of unpleasant surprises. (This doesn’t mean nagging your colleagues in an annoying way, but it’s okay to say, “Just wanted to make sure we’re on track to have that dataset ready by Tuesday – do you need anything from me in interim?”)

Check in with yourself, too. Make sure you’re reviewing and meeting your sub-deadlines, keeping up the pace dictated by the schedule you laid out, and course-correcting before any small delays balloon into big ones.

6. Assume you’ll have last-minute issues. In managing people, I’ve noticed there are a lot of people who think, “That draft is due at close of business Wednesday, so I’ll write it Wednesday morning, which will give me plenty of time.” And it would have – except that they were out sick Wednesday, or had to field a client crisis, or otherwise couldn’t work on it that day and missed the deadline as a result. Don’t wait until a deadline is looming; work on things well ahead of deadlines, and you’ll more reliably stick to schedules (and often have the bonus of finishing up early).

Written By: Alison Green
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.