Is a deadline really a deadline? Elaine Varelas weighs in

Deadlines can be a common source of conflict in the workplace—sometimes you work overtime to meet a deadline that actually wasn't urgent; other times, you may feel like you have to read minds to know what the "real" deadline for a project is. Elaine Varelas provides solutions to this issue.

Ask the Job Doc.

Q: Is a deadline really a deadline? My colleague will say “Please complete this by Thursday at noon”—but when I send it to him at 11:30am, he comments that I’m getting it in “under the wire.” I was half an hour early! If he needed it sooner, why not give me a different deadline? Are there unspoken deadline rules I should know?

A: A deadline is the last possible moment someone needs something. Everyone wants projects long before the deadline that they give you, and they’re hoping that you’ll be able to deliver something before that last possible moment. But giving people earlier deadlines than necessary causes angst for everyone, so your colleagues are doing you a favor by giving you as much time as possible to complete it. Many people work to deadline as opposed to keeping things moving forward at a better pace, and as a result, workplaces see projects being completed truly “under the wire.” There are no unspoken rules, so to speak—there are just two perspectives and two different sets of expectations that need to be reconciled.


Your colleague’s comment could perceived as a critique that says “Prioritize my work more highly in the future.” This may or may not be fair of him, but it depends on the circumstances and the nature of the project. Is this project a request from your peer? Or from the CEO? Did you have a week to complete this or just 24 hours? Is there a significant business contract on the line and you’ve given your colleague just half an hour to review before submitting? Would this person want to proof, edit, or enhance what they needed? Only giving yourself a half-hour window is cutting it close—you never know when your computer is going to crash or your building is going to plan a fire drill. Anything can happen in a half hour.

Examine the prevailing culture at your organization. Some companies are fairly relaxed and give a single deadline with no commentary on your progress, whether you complete it two days early or two minutes early. Other organizations have clear cultures of much stricter deadlines, so if someone says the deadline is Friday, you should really complete it on Thursday. Different people have different reputations, too, so consider that when planning your work each day. If one colleague truly doesn’t mind receiving the work up to the minute of the deadline, perhaps a stricter colleague’s project could be prioritized as appropriate.


Another factor likely contributing to this issue is the difference between a real deadline and an ideal deadline—and the fact that your and your colleague’s perceptions of this are not aligned. The next time you’re given a deadline, try to make it a conversation rather than a unilateral request. A conversation is necessary because the parties involved likely have vastly different expectations, priorities, and workflows and that discrepancy is rarely made explicit in these situations. Without a conversation, there are two suboptimal situations that are likely to occur. When a unilateral request is made—“I need this by Friday at 2pm”—one problem that arises is that the individual doing the project will now likely wait until Friday to complete it. However, he might have said “Actually, I’m pretty free on Thursday and could get it to you by the end of the day” if there had been a two-way conversation. Similarly, that same request for Friday at 2pm might just be an ideal deadline and not a hard deadline—but if the individual doing the project doesn’t know that, he might work overtime and let other projects drop to complete it, wasting his own time and others’, when the project was actually less urgent than it seemed.


So, what should this conversation look like? Both parties need to establish their needs and bandwidth while remaining honest and transparent. The person making the request might say “Terry, this project is due to the client next Monday at 3pm. Can you get it to me Thursday at noon so I can review it and add in final data?” With this, the hard external deadline is clear as is the explanation for the earlier ideal deadline. If this timeline works for the individual doing the project, that’s great—if not, he might counter and say “Actually, the CEO asked me to complete another report by Thursday, so I can complete this by Friday at 10am. Will that work for you?” This kind of honesty and transparency will build trust and understanding among colleagues, making future collaborations even easier.

You’re not missing some hidden deadline rules—you’re missing honest conversations around deadline requests. When there’s no conversation, someone gets shortchanged. For a process with no judgment and no unnecessary late nights, clarify the reason for a deadline and have open conversations around reasonable expectations for both parties.