When you first start thinking about those important dates like deadlines for projects, birthdays, anniversaries and vacations, they seem so far away. You feel like you have plenty of time to plan, buy gifts or work on the project, but you get busy. The days fly by and suddenly you are out of time.

Have you ever noticed how important dates sneak up on you?

While I can’t call and remind you to send a birthday card to your mom or buy the plane ticket for your much needed vacation, these simple tips may help you build a project timeline to meet your next deadline.

Proper Planning

Start with the End in Mind – Make a complete list of the deliverable items.  Identify the elements which will take the longest to complete.  Build your timeline based on those items.  For example, print and collateral always take the longest to complete. Unlike email newsletters or web copy which you can tweak right up to launch, content for postcards and brochures needs to be completed several weeks in advance.  This gives the designer time to do his or her best work and send it to a printer.  If you are mailing collateral, be sure to add another week for addressing and sending to the post office.

Identify People and Resources Early – Don’t wait till the last minute to ask for help. Think you might need help getting postcards addressed or gift bags stuffed?  Reach out to people well in advance so they can carve out the time to help you. Last minute requests are often turned down, not because people don’t want to help, but because they have deadlines of their own.  This project may be the most important thing on your plate, but it may be fairly far down the list for others you are relying on.  By reaching out early, it is easier to get commitments on when you can expect content from others.

Identify Potential Bottlenecks – In a perfect world, everyone does exactly what they need to when they need to.  Real life doesn’t work that way. Think about all the people who will be involved in the process.  Be sure key decision makers will be available to give feedback. Nothing is more frustrating than having something designed and ready to go only to find out a business owner or senior manager is on vacation for a week. If you are relying on others, make sure you know their schedule, timeline and critical deadlines.

Build in Extra Time – There are going to be bumps in the road.  Think about how long it would take to complete each task in the project if it was the only thing you were working on. Now be realistic. Usually a looming deadline is a special project added on to your already busy schedule. There will be interruptions and crisis. Don’t create unnecessary stress by waiting too long to start.

Be Realistic When Setting Deadlines – This may be the most important part of this list. As you start a complex project, give yourself enough time to do it right. There are some deadlines which can’t be moved; Christmas will always be December 25 for instance, but most are arbitrary. When mapping out your tasks, give yourself permission to finish a great project rather than rush through two mediocre projects.

Document What Worked – Most projects follow similar paths.  Keeping notes on how long it actually takes to get something produced will help you create better plans for completing your next project.  Also knowing who routinely dropped the ball and who you can count on will save you from headache. Learning from both success and failure will increase the chances of future success.