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How to cope with deadline stress

Businessman at desk in office rubbing his eyes
Businessman at desk in office rubbing his eyes. Photo: Getty Creative

We’ve all had the same sinking feeling at some point in our working lives. An impending deadline is drawing closer, and you feel stuck with fear - unable to make progress no matter how long you stare at your computer screen, as precious minutes tick by.

Everyone knows that the stress of a deadline can be counterproductive. You attempt to plod on through the work to get it to your manager, while trying to suppress the worry that you won’t finish it on time. If you don’t, you risk getting into trouble - which could have repercussions.

If you think you’re alone in your struggle, you aren’t alone. Work is the most common cause of stress for UK adults, with 59% experiencing it, according to a recent Perkbox survey. A separate study of 1,000 people by CareerCast found 71% have higher than moderate stress in the workplace - of which the most common cause is deadlines.


While some people find working under pressure helps them get work done, it’s not the same for others - and it doesn’t take much for the stress to become too much. And although it is not always possible to avoid deadlines, there are certain steps you can take to make things easier for yourself.

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Break your project down

Whatever you are working on, breaking it up into smaller, more manageable chunks will help you gradually get everything done without feeling overwhelmed.

It can be helpful to write a list of everything you need to do - whether it’s gathering research, getting interviews or creating presentations - and write down how long you’ll need for each task to create a schedule.

Work through the list methodically and make sure you tick off what you’ve finished. The sense of achievement of completing each task will help you gain momentum and carry on with the rest of the work.

It’s important to tackle one task at a time, rather than trying to do everything at once - you’ll spend longer on something if you are always switching your focus to other things.

Work on easier tasks if you’re stuck

If you’ve reached an impasse, try turning your attention to smaller, easier tasks - rather than fretting over the challenge you’re stuck on. You’ll still be getting your work done and you can turn back to the bigger problem once you’ve had some time away from it.

Set realistic deadlines

Most people are guilty of setting themselves unrealistic deadlines which are impossible to stick to. This isn’t just because we’re overworked, but because we are prone to underestimating our workloads. Many of us fall prey to the planning fallacy, a cognitive bias in which we fail to accurately predict how much time we need to complete a task. In one study, students working on a project estimated they would be finished 30 days earlier than they actually did.

It can be helpful to have a good look at your “to-do” list for the day - and to break down exactly how much time you’ll need for each task. If there’s something you know you’ll find more challenging, give yourself extra time.

Remove distractions and take regular breaks

Although we’re at work for an average of nine hours a day, research has shown we’re only useful for a few hours a day. A study by Vouchercloud surveyed nearly 2,000 UK workers to reveal we’re only productive for two hours and 53 minutes out of the working day - with most of us checking news websites or social media instead of focusing on work.

When you feel overwhelmed by a fast-approaching deadline, it can be all-too easy to procrastinate. You can try blocking certain websites, like Facebook or Twitter, or change the passwords so you have to log-in each time you want to go on them.

“The modern workplace has an awful lot to distract us with, especially with our phones at our desks and tea to be drank,” said Chris Johnson, client services director of vouchercloud.

“Taking a break once in a while is by all means okay – in fact, many high profile business leaders recommend taking regular breaks in order to make you more productive. But, taking calls from your friend or partner and checking social media might be pushing your luck.”

When you do take a break, step away from your screen and go for a walk or get some fresh air before returning to work.

Ask for help if you need it

If you’re really struggling with a deadline, speak to your manager with time to spare. Letting them know about any problems in advance - if you need advice, or more time, for example - means they’re more likely to understanding and able to provide support.

With a demanding project, it can be useful to find out if you can ease the stress by asking for additional resources to help with the work, or by finding out where timelines can be relaxed to provide some relief.

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