Managing stress under a hard deadline

Having a deadline for a project is generally taken as a rough estimation and there is some implied flexibility that everybody in the organization secretly agrees to.

Having a hard deadline is different: if you “have to” end a project by a specific date or the whole work and investment you have done will be wasted, you are dealing with a different animal…

As the final date approaches, you start to question whether everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing. The easy way out is to simply pretend that nobody is working hard enough and start yelling around. My experience tells me that is hardly the solution.

If on the other hand you already know that all the resources you have are pushing their limits to the very end, there is not much you can do, or is there ? The stress builds up as the date gets closer, little problems get bigger and bigger and what 6 months ago looked like a triviality now has the potential to kill the project…

Here are some essential tools that can save your life:

1) Spend some real quality time on planning, and then spend some more

We tend to underestimate the value of a good plan. You have to accept the fact that a plan can never be perfect, needs to have some flexibilities but not too many. If a plan becomes too flexible the project might never end, but if it is too tight, then the stress will eat you and your team up as a black hole.

A good plan also needs to have room for new information and be adjusted on the fly but that is not enough, a plan is a living organism and its only healthy if everyone involved updates its status constantly. Many people complain that they have no time to update their task statuses, I say its all BS, the value of the work done is lost if you have no chance to control the flow.

Today there are wonderful technologies that allow project planning and team collaboration to be done in an informative, useful and even entertaining way: Basecamp, Cubetree, Activecollab to say a few.

Technologies are only usefull if they are utilized in the correct manner, but once the right tools are integrated to the workflow you can’t even imagine how life saving they can be.

2) Be careful to 3rd party vendors

You can have a certain level of control over your team, how to push them, how to manage them, how to motivate them, but you often don’t have any control over 3rd parties involved. So be careful in scheduling your time with them. You’d be surprised at what 1 week of work for your team translates in an other company. I have seen a day job done in weeks… You often tend to plan according to your time expectations, don’t pretend the same performance from external sources, they might have different priorities then you.

3) Prioritize before, Prioritize during, Prioritize after…

There are things in life that cannot be planned. When they happen you might find yourself in a place where you have to chose what part of the planned features to let go. The thing is you cannot know when the unexpected will happen, so its a great practice to divide your project into the minimum acceptable, the essential extras, the cherry on the cake.

After the start, as the project starts to take shape you will have great ideas, ideas that you will want to include immediately.

Well, if they are not game changers, don’t… Wait for the project to end before improving it. It’s real hard to be disciplined enough. To tell you the truth I suck at this, as I see the project developing I immediately tend to try and perfect it, but those little additions, a little cut here, a brush stroke there, when you add it all up you notice that you are out of time struggling to finish any of it.

This is where the planning phase once again proves to be critical, if given enough time, most of the things you think of during the project might have be planned in advance.

Now lets say that you really have a breakthrough and you NEED to add something to the project during it: prioritize, reschedule, plan and update all the work flow. See how the new addition effects other things, look at it again and make the decision on weather its really worth it.

4) Reality check, Know where you are at any time

So now you have a good project plan, the time-line is set, priorities are in place, the team is collaborating and the hours are flowing like the wind.

Especially during big and long projects, when you start seeing that everyone is working and things start to get done, you get confortable too early and might lose sight of where you are. It might seem like you are in the middle of an amazon jungle with no compass and out of water with two options: hoping for the best (God, a helicopter, Jane…) or running around relentlessly with the hope that the physical effort gets you somewhere (generally this leads to getting more lost).

A routine check on the schedule, a regular face to face with key people, re-prioritization is key to prevent getting lost. This is again one of the areas where you face friction, the “no time” argument is always there. Funny thing is that you shouldn’t have any “time argument” if the planning is done right…

5) Learn to dance with the stress waves

Management does not have a one fit for all formula. You need to learn how to understand when to push, when to wait, when to intervene and when to have faith. Its a continuous dance, a tango if you will.

There will be times when only you can determine which direction needs to be taken, but somethimes you need to wait and go with the flow until its your time to make the move. If you try to control too much you will either be too stiff, too heavy or eventually break your team apart.

You also need some psychology skills, some empathy and awareness of the mood and morale of the people involved. The relationship between them, the little arguments that can grow to become catastrophic during the stretch.

If you care about what you do and so do the people around you, its very likely that there will be emotional moments, high and lows, the hardest part is to understand how to move, its a rhythm that is perfected by experience.

6) Work with the best

No matter what you do there will be always a time where things get out of hand, really dangerous moments where making it or breaking it depends on every one of the people surrounding you. You want to have the best around you under tough circumstances. You want to have people with responsibility, people that will own the project and be with you till the end no matter what. It is during this moments that you understand better the value of having chosen the right team.

You can only trust the best, but its a two way street, you need to be trusted too. Respect is something you earn in life, no money can buy it. And the real good people in life, when they trow themselves into the fire with you or better for you, they never do it for the money. They do it for a vision, for a dream, for a sense of purpose, they do it to make a difference, to grow…

Believe me i have worked many times with teams that let me down, completely alone.I learned a lot during those failing moments of my life. Its cheaper to hire them, but the cost of having them under fire is lethal.

I was also lucky enough to work with people that hold me over their shoulders. There have been times that I didn’t know how to thank, and times where I didn’t understand how they could be so faithful. I am so grateful for this, I will value this gifts all my life… I hope I will always be able to show how much I appreciate being on the same boat with them.

7 ) Love what you do

Love what you do. You can’t fake it, you can’t learn to love something you don’t. The Universe is designed in a way that everything has a certain gravity towards their perfect place, listen to your heart and you will find it.

8) Don’t give up until you do, learn, thank, and start all over again

Failures are the biggest teachers in life. If you are really willing to grow you can find a deep lesson within each one of them. All your failures are about you, even the ones where you thought you were really unlucky, were you thought the world was spinning against you. If you really grasp this, there is nothing in this world that can stop you. You are bound to grow.

Even the legend, Michael Jordan thinks its true (video):

I failed over, and over, and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed…

I have done every one of the mistakes I have described above. I have done many times exactly the opposite of what I just wrote. I cherish each one of my mistakes, they made me who I am today. So if you fail, dont be scared, don’t panic, it’s ok… Just try to understand where did it all go wrong. Think hard about that moment where you could have acted differently, what could you have done better to prevent it… If you think you did everything right, think again, if you still can’t find yourself at fault, think if this is really where you want to be in your life… As I told you, you cannot fool the universe, and if you are supposed to be someplace else, you will be pulled away… (BTW this is why you also need to work with people that are happy about what they do…)


I just met a hard deadline on a very big difficult project. Its a big bet, I have great expectations… I am lucky to work with a team of highly motivated professionals, people that really know what they are doing. I have to thank each one of them for their dedication and persistence. I couldn’t do it without their support.We will do big big things together, this is only the beginning.

I have to thank their leader separately, he kept it all together… I am very lucky to work with him, it is so hard to find the best…

Sadok Kohen
In truth, without deceit, certain, and most veritable…