Dealing with Deadlines: 5 Ways to Manage Your Project Without Killing Creativity

By Chelsea Babin

Creativity and flexibility are essential to innovation, but deadlines are one of the most important elements for any IT department. How do you balance time management with pushing boundaries and implementing new ideas? Whether you’re taking on your projects individually or collaborating with a team, there are strategies you can use to take down deadlines without killing creativity. Here are five tactics to help you thrive throughout your next deadline-driven project:

1)   Open Communication & Managed Expectations:  If you have the luxury of knowing your deadlines as soon as your manager assigns a project, congratulations! The best thing you can do in these situations is come in prepared from day one. Whether you have one week or ten months to complete your new assignment, having an open conversation about what you believe you can realistically achieve in the time frame set by clients or managers is a great way to start a project of any size. Evaluate what you can realistically accomplish in that time and state it outright. This is a time to be practical and analytical, rather than idealistic. If your boss sets a deadline that you find unreasonable, express your concerns. There may be little to no wiggle room here, but you’ll never know unless you explain your side. Tell them why you estimate this time limit will exceed your capabilities and propose a more reasonable schedule. Whether it takes adding another set of hands to the project or cutting down on functionality, deadlines need to be met. It will be easier to negotiate your target date at the start of a project rather than later when it could reflect poorly on your capabilities.

2)   Establish a Clear Vision: Knowing where you’re going will help you get there faster. It’s a simple idea that’s often forgotten at the beginning of a project, when the wide-open possibilities of adding extra functionality and dreaming up imaginative aesthetics can often distract from practicality. Don’t get bogged down in the sheer number of possibilities. The lack of a clear vision for a project will delay it. Time spent at the beginning to clarify the vision with your team, client, manager, and even with yourself, is time well spent. If you’re unsure of what direction to go, planning small deadlines on the way to your final cutoff point and execution of elements with multiple potential approaches. In fact, having a clear vision will help you more realistically set your final deadline. These two aspects should go hand in hand if possible, but if your target date is already set make sure your immediate second step is clarifying the vision for the project.

3)   Schedule In Reverse: Now that you have your deadline, it’s time to make a schedule. Use the calendar in your email, on your phone or in your physical planner, whichever works best for you, to start planning out a project. First, mark your final cutoff point. Then, schedule in smaller milestones you intend to hit along the way. This segmented planning will help you set realistic goals to hit so that your project never goes off track. If you’re on a team, do this collaboratively as soon as possible so everyone knows what their individual responsibilities are and how often the team will meet to discuss progress. If you’re working on your own this is a great jumping off point to help you focus and prioritize.

4)   Creative Thoughts, Brainstorming and Reflecting: Ignoring creative thinking could ruin your project, but so could focusing too intently on innovation. Don’t put pressure on yourself to reinvent the wheel every time you start a project. This will hamper productivity and slow you down. Not every project has to be totally unique. Depending on the situation, tried and true methods may work perfectly for your current assignment. Just make sure you aren’t on autopilot, doing things the same way every time because you haven’t set aside the time to think of better methods. Speaking of setting aside time, creative thinking, brainstorming and reflecting deserve their own blocks of time on your schedule. Setting aside blocks of time for creative reflection throughout your project will help you constantly evaluate your progress, making sure it aligns with the overall vision for your assignment. If you’re working on this project collaboratively, scheduling meetings to discuss revolutionary ideas and reflect on potential innovations you can implement can take a lot of time. Make sure these meetings have direction and clear purpose so that creative discussion isn’t squashed, but productivity is saved.

5)   Avoid Pressure and Procrastination: Sprinting through the last few elements of a project within hours of the final cutoff point may give you an adrenaline rush, but it’s not conducive to good work. Will you miss your deadline and disappoint your manager? Will you turn in a sub-par contribution to a team project that clearly pinpoints you as the weakest link? Don’t let these questions pop up! Avoid the cycle of pressure and anxiety by cutting out procrastination and sticking to your plan. No, your creative thinking time should not be eliminated, it may result in some of your best work. That being said, those time blocks you created are a time for reflection and brainstorming, not procrastination. Focus on the task at hand and avoid distracting tangents that can send you spiraling in the wrong direction. While you’re at it, make sure your priorities are straight. Maybe you’re scheduled to work on an important aspect of your project but you haven’t fully formed your plan for executing it yet, that’s fine. If you’re going to put off certain aspects of the project, make sure you’re substituting in another project related task to ensure your deadline won’t be missed. Prioritizing is an important skill to have in a deadline-driven, project-based IT environment. That being said, having a strong hold on your assignment and insisting on doing things as you have always done them will stifle your creative possibilities. Simplify and eliminate extraneous procedures when possible so that you can allow for leniency, brainstorming and innovation.

Deadlines can be intimidating, but if you’re equipped with the right tools for planning your productivity, they won’t be! Organization and prioritization are important, but that doesn’t mean you have to kill off any hopes of brainstorming innovative ideas. Instead, follow these steps throughout your next major project to ensure you deliver creative, well-executed results on schedule.