Deadline Overload: Survival Tips From the Trenches

By Erin Shaver, Senior Grantwriter at Joining Vision and Action

Sometimes deadlines fit nicely into your life—spaced out neatly, one being met as the next one appears on the horizon. Or, if you’re lucky, there is breathing room between the big ones, a chance to pause, reflect and recharge before the next one bears down.

In reality, does this ever really happen?

I always say the beauty of deadlines is that they are just that—an exact date and time that a project absolutely must come to an end, no matter what. But when those endings all come at once, with deadlines you didn’t set or perhaps cannot control, things can get overwhelming. If you can delegate, by all means do! But when that just isn’t possible, here are a few tips from the trenches in managing the pressure cooker that is deadline overload.

Set timelines

Timelines are critical. One of the best ways to manage deadlines and expectations, if other parties are involved, is to make a timeline. Start at the end, give yourself a cushion, and immediately make the deadline at least two days early. That way, for the final push, when inevitably something comes up, some glitch occurs, or someone important to the project is out sick, you aren’t mere hours away from submission cutoff.

Work your way backward for each milestone that needs to happen (final review/edit, final draft, first review, first draft), allowing adequate space. If making a budget, it’s a good idea to always do that as early as you can, and anything that looks like it might take a while to gather should be addressed at inception.

Overall, when building a timeline, giving cushions is key. Avoid overpromising how fast you can get something done. Expectations are everything, and in any facet of life, people are always pleasantly surprised to get something a day or two early instead of being told it will be a day or two late. Plus, if you’re managing multiple deadlines at once, the timeline is a good place to check in when one project has taken over and then you look back at another and face that moment of, “Oh, wait, what am I supposed to be doing?”

Start writing early… if you can

Yes, when I was in high school, I, too, was the procrastinator, the girl who often wrote her papers the night before (or even morning of!), finding the tension of the last minute to be a breeding ground for my best inspiration. I was impatient; I didn’t like making numerous drafts and dragging out the process. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that perhaps the last-minute push gave me a spurt of energy and motivation, but the paper I turned in was not at all my best work. Now, when I’m writing long, complicated papers, reports, or yes, grants—especially with specific questions, scoring rubrics and character counts for each section (which is increasingly the norm in grantwriting!)—I know I’m not even close to the best approach on the first or second go.

But setting an internal “draft-ready” deadline—for me it’s our in-house content reviews—triggers that internal endorphin flow I need to push through like it’s a college all-nighter and get the draft in better shape, long before it’s due. Pretend it is the final draft even though it’s not.

Also, I’ve found that the best way to remedy a draft that needs attentiveness is to totally take a break from it. Preferably for two to three days, somewhere mid-writing, you leave it alone. If you give yourself that luxury, you have the chance to come back to your writing with fresh eyes—less caught up in the specific details of each section but with a bigger- picture point of view that can only happen with built-in breaks—and ample writing time.

Use technology to your favor

Many big projects have a lot of parties involved—and a lot of review time required. As a writer, editor, project manager, whatever role you have, it is frustrating to cram to get something to someone only to find that it languishes in the person’s inbox or on their desk for another day or two.

Of course, most of us have also been on the reverse end, with a full platter of meetings and assignments and no bandwidth left on a day that the review unexpectedly pops into our inbox, with expectations for a quick turnaround that is now destined to ruin our evening plans. Or in another case, the document has gone through all its reviews and seems ready for final edit when an unexpected review shows up at the last minute, using an outdated version of the draft—or worse yet, has comments that conflict with the changes already made.

I have found that using shared servers, such as DropBox or Google Drive, is one of the better ways to avoid any of these stresses. Everyone sees the same version and can work on it in real time when it fits best into their schedule—and you can see if they have gotten to it yet!

Not too long ago, I had a project that required signatures from seven different people in one letter. I don’t know how we would have gathered all those in two days without a shared drive of some sort. It’s also so helpful when managing multiple deadlines and projects at once that require different reviews, approvals or attachments. Just make sure you have all the privacy settings the way you want them so people who need to edit, can.

Practice self-preservation

Take it one day at a time, and most importantly, take time for yourself. In an industry filled with burnout, this can’t be emphasized enough. For me, it used to be running. Lately, I’ve been more dedicated to yoga. Truth be told, I didn’t even understand yoga until I was 30 (Too slow! It’s boring! Too trendy!), and I didn’t start regularly incorporating it into my daily life until just a couple of years ago. Now, it’s as important to me as a doctor’s appointment, and I will make time for it for a variety of reasons. Despite all my hours on my laptop and the sometimes poor posture that goes along with that, yoga keeps shoulder-blade and lower-back pain away better than when I was 23. Not to mention the stress relief and clarity. Whatever works for you, make time for it.

Sure, the deadlines are important, but so are you. And when else fails, well, it’s just that: a deadline. And it too will pass.

Grant deadlines got you down? Know that JVA’s team is here to help. Just don’t wait until the last minute!

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