3

I am trying to find completely new ways to manage my tasks, to do, goals, etc.

I am using Linear. Today, I started only writing ‘issues’ that are actual issues - ie, problems, or, pain points. Not just any idea I have for a “task”. So far, this has given me a totally different perspective on getting things done - not, a million ideas for things to do, but, ‘What is the problem?’ Ie, what is stopping you, or in the way?

I am now wondering if there is some professional guideline, about deadlines. Is there a style that advocates setting deadlines, even though they are not ‘real’ deadlines - nothing will happen if you don’t finish by that date, it’s just a suggestion. Vs., ‘intrinsic’ deadlines like, if you do not do that by that date, that thing is over, it’s not happening. You missed it.

1
  • Ask your child to do their homework. Give them 10 min. Ask your parents that live across the country to visit you. In 10 min. Take the frozen chicken you brought home from the grocery store and stick it in the oven. Set the timer for 10 min. Do these things make sense? Now insert your "solve problem here". Give it 10 min. Even if nothing happens after 10 min pass, then what?
    – Bogdan
    Apr 3 at 19:16

2 Answers 2

7

Don't set fake deadlines.

It's one thing to schedule work with planned start and end dates. However, deadlines should be reserved for real dates that, if missed, would have consequences. Sometimes, having planned start and end dates, perhaps derived from a deadline or other significant date, can be helpful.

The biggest problem with fake deadlines is an erosion of trust. If the team fails to hit the deadline, with or without pressure on themselves, and then learns that the deadline was fake, they will doubt other deadlines and consequences in the future. If they put pressure on themselves and hit the deadline and then learn it was fake, they'll realize the pressure and stress were unnecessary. The more times an artificial deadline causes stress, the more tension will exist between the project manager and the team.

They also tend to be overly constraining, especially if the project manager can't track real versus fake deadlines. When the work changes, and it's almost certainly bound to change, which is why we have change management processes for plan-driven approaches and agile methods, we need a clear picture of which dates are true deadlines and which are part of the notional plan. This adds complexity when trying to replan work.

5

TL;DR

Save "deadlines" for real deadlines with actual consequences, or for larger projects where missed milestones will materially impact your schedule's follow-on dependencies. There are certainly outdated management styles such as Theory X that advocate setting arbitrary dates for things, but it isn't really useful for most modern workplaces or for personal time management.

Analyzing the Question

To me, the original question seems more like a Getting Things Done (GTD) question than a project management one. While there's some overlap, they aren't really the same things but it seems sufficiently on-topic that it deserves an answer that covers both the site topic and the tangential question of scheduling in general.

Any to-do list, whether it's for personal use or project/program management, is really about two things:

  1. Prioritization
    NB: Note how I put "prioritization" first?
    You need to know what you need to work on, in what order, and why.
  2. Tracking Status
    You need to keep track of all the steps in between where you are right now and which steps in the process you still need to complete. For routine tasks this probably doesn't require a formal plan, but for anything big or complex you'll need to track status somehow.

I'll talk about them in more detail below. This should suffice for most questions about goals vs. deadlines, but if you're trying to address a more formal process then there are entire books dedicated to the subject of planning, scheduling, and prioritizing.

How and Why to Prioritize and Track Status

When you boil it down, both are important, but prioritization is really the key. And what are the essential elements of prioritization? You won't find this in a book, but they're more or less truisms.

  • Ordinality

    Not everything can be priority #1. Its doesn't matter how you order them, but you must apply some consistent approach to determining the order in which things need to be done, and anything that's not #1 on the list must be subordinated.

  • Consequences

    If you create to-dos based on arbitrary goals like "I want to read x books this month, so I need to read y chapters a day to meet my goal" then you've created a set of linked deadlines, but there's usually no financial, career, or life consequence to missing deadlines without a material impact. So, this is something you might track but you wouldn't prioritize it above something tied to a more significant outcome. NB: There's that word "prioritization" again!

  • Deadlines

    Real deadlines are usually tied to sequenced dependencies with consequences. If you need to catch a plane at 5:00 PM, that's a hard deadline. If you're late, you miss your plane.

    Project management, and to an extent any GTD-like approach, has to work backwards or forwards from some key activity to "plan the plan." To continue the airport example, in order to get to the airport on time you have to properly prioritize and sequence packing, ticketing, transportation, parking, getting through security, and probably a half dozen other things that are involved with catching your 5:00 PM flight.

    You also need to plan padding so that you have some flex in your plan. If you don't arrive at the airport until 4:59 PM, you have no chance of catching your flight. Project management and scheduling of any task-based dependencies requires proper sequencing and padding too.

  • Real Deadlines vs. Optional To-Do List Items

    You can certainly set arbitrary deadlines for yourself, but save arbitrary deadlines for the "nice to haves" or "if I have the extra time" things. Real deadlines are schedule-driven things based on your dependencies. Don't confuse the two!

    Each deadline is essentially a milestone or gating activity to something else. If you can't fill in the following blanks with something meaningful, it's not really a task with a deadline.

    I need to complete _____ by 2:00 PM next Thursday so that _____.

  • Tracking Status is About Progressing Against Scheduled Milestones and Deadlines

    Sure, you can track the status of random things, but it really only adds value if it helps you determine whether you're on-track or off-track for meeting your schedule. If you have to be at the airport by 5:00 PM, have to be at the gate at least 15 minutes before departure, plan 30 minutes to get from security to your gate, ensure you reserve an hour to get through security at a busy airport, and know it takes 30 minutes to get to the airport, you now have a schedule which requires you to leave the house no later than 2:45 PM without slack.

    Tracking status helps you know whether your plan is at risk. If you didn't leave any padding and your taxi doesn't show up by 2:45 PM, you'd know you were off-track. You'll have to make that time up somewhere! If the TSA lines were longer than expected and you don't get through the checkpoint before 4:30 PM, your status tracking would tell you that you now have only 15 minutes instead of 30 to get to the right concourse and departure gate. Better run!

Don't Treat Goals as Deadlines

Goals are things you want to do. Deadlines are things where there ar consequences for missing them. Schedules and milestones can apply to either, but putting in the effort to build a complex schedule for "nice to haves" is often wasted effort.

In project management, one way of bucketing these things is the MoSCoW method. If something isn't a "must do" or at least a "should do" then it's not really something that should have a deadline attached.


For the professionals, I'm deliberately excluding opportunity costs from this bucketing exercise. Go ahead and explain that in context if you like.


There are lots of different ways to organize and prioritize your tasks, but you have to decide why you're trying to organize them, how you need to schedule them, and what the impact of your prioritization method will be. Quite frankly, if it's not something you can reduce to a life event, a legal or contractual obligation, or a dollar figure then you'll have to figure out what prioritization means to you in your particular context.

There are lots of GTD-type tools out there. I use some of them professionally to keep track of my work day, but rely on more professional scheduling and planning tools for projects and programs. Most such tools have common features like being able to organize things within projects and sub-projects, with hash tags, with priority classifications (e.g. red, yellow, orange, green) or in sequential order, with due dates and schedule reminders, setting up recurring tasks/events, and having tasks with sub-tasks. Professional-level tools will also have ways to define predecessor and successor tasks, so that you can clearly identify the critical path through your plans.

We discourage software recommendations on this site, but you can't swing a cat on any app store without finding lots of options that may suit your needs. Just remember that such apps are only assistive tools. It's still up to you to figure out what really matters and how best to structure the work to accomplish your goals.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.