Urgency Vs. Reality

I’m no stranger to tight deadlines. Sometimes there’s an event around the corner that we need to print materials for. Other times there’s a launch date that many people have planned around, so we have to stay on track to make sure everything is finished by then. I actually enjoy having firm time constraints because it helps focus both me and the client. It also means that the project is likely to finish within a predictable window rather than drag out indefinitely.

The thing I don’t enjoy is when urgency becomes an arbitrary driving force behind every exchange.

I’m not a fan of phrases like ASAP, TIME-SENSITIVE or URGENT, because they don’t mean anything. They communicate anxiety, tension and stress, but they don’t say anything about what I actually need to know: when is the real deadline?

Urgent? Why, is someone’s life on the line? Will your business collapse if we don’t get a Facebook ad updated within the hour? When I don’t respond to something immediately, it’s because I’m doing something else, likely for another client who also wants something done as soon as possible. 

The best time to communicate a deadline is at the beginning of the project.

You need a brochure? Great! What are the specs and when do you need it in hand? Those are usually my first questions. What I’m looking for is a specific date. That helps me to put together a timeline that incorporates concept development, revising, proofing, print production and shipping. If I can’t meet your deadline, I’ll tell you that up front. If you’re the kind of person that prefers having something finished well within the actual deadline, tell me that. That will become the date I plan around.

The worst time to communicate a deadline is when we’re already knee deep in the design.

Perhaps you assumed the project would be done sooner, and impatience takes hold. I understand wanting to get something off your plate, but this isn’t a good enough reason to rearrange a schedule. Maybe your developer is suddenly ready to start building out the design TODAY, and you need me to make one last round of revisions and then prep the final files, like NOW. The anxious emails start flying. Follow up texts and panicked phone calls roll in next.

If it seems like urgency is being projected onto the situation for no clear reason, then I don’t go out of my way to address it. I do my best to respond to things quickly, but I’m not going to interrupt another equally important task to satisfy someone’s closure issues. If anything, phrases like ASAP and TIME SENSITIVE have the opposite effect of getting something done faster. Mostly they just demotivate and distract.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that last-minute needs will pop up. Perhaps you just got invited to a speaking event, and you need some worksheets and a new business card ready to go by the end of the week. I do my best to help in situations like this, because I know it’s impossible to plan in advance for every single thing. I’m not a scheduling tyrant who refuses to do anything that hasn’t been carved into the stone tablet that is my calendar.

If a last minute deadline arises, the key is to ask for what you need in a way that communicates the reality of the situation. As in:

I have an event on X day. Is it possible to get some worksheets designed by X day? 

I like this because it presents a clear reason for acting quickly, along with a clear deadline. 9 times out of 10, I will happily move things around to make this project happen, especially if the client has a history of being reasonable and respectful in other situations.

Again, I understand the desire to get something done as soon as possible.

I know what it’s like to feel anxious when a response time from a collaborator is longer than I would like. But I also know that my feelings of unease are mine to manage.

Unless I’ve clearly communicated a time when I need a deliverable, and then given that person plenty of time to plan for that deadline, then it’s not fair to expect others to follow my floaty internal timeline. We are all doing our best to get things done efficiently. Let’s focus on communicating the real details of our needs rather than our generalized anxiety.