Working to Deadlines: 12 Ways to Be More Focused and Productive

If you find yourself struggling with distractions when working to deadlines, you're not alone. Here are 12 valuable tips to help keep you focused and increase your productivity.


One of the defining characteristics of thriving small business owners is their ability to set their own productivity pace. It’s a hidden skill that you won’t understand until you find yourself alone with your computer, your deadlines, and the itch to check Twitter or email just one more time before you get down to business.

Most entrepreneurs will confess they’ve had to learn the hard way when it comes to shutting out distractions and getting work done.

You don’t have to. Instead, we’ve put together 12 distraction-busting strategies to help you be as productive as possible, making meeting deadlines a breeze.

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1. Create an Ideal Workspace

While your couch, bed, kitchen table or the floor of your biggest closet are all acceptable places to work in a pinch, they’re not ideal. If you want to be more productive and avoid the aches and pains that inevitably come from bad ergonomics, it’s helpful to create a workspace that is as pleasing to the mind as it is to the body.

That usually means a cleared surface, a sturdy chair, no distractions and all the right resources at your fingertips. Gretchen Rubin, author of Outer Order, Inner Calm, says that when we clear our lives and spaces of the stuff we don’t need, our minds are freer, and we feel calmer and more energetic.

That’s the kind of headspace to be in when you’re trying to meet the deadlines that matter!

2. Make a Manageable To-Do List—and Stick to It

Create a to-do list every week—then commit to completing it. Here’s a two-step process to help you tackle time management and stick to the plan.

Step 1: Use the ABCDE Method to Meet Deadlines

Prioritize each item by:
A. Work that must be complete within the next day or so to avoid consequences
B. Work that should be done but isn’t as time-sensitive
C. Work that would be nice to finish, but isn’t urgent
D. Work that can be delegated
E. Work that can be eliminated

Step 2: Pick One Big Thing (or Two Small Things) to Complete Each Day

Set yourself up for success by tackling one or two items. It’s realistic and manageable. Plus, you’ll have the satisfaction of crossing them off the list instead of pushing them out—and invariably bumping an item on tomorrow’s to-do list.

3. Map Your Day

Once you’ve been working in your chosen trade long enough, you’ll have a rough idea of how much time each task takes. Use that knowledge to fuel your productivity by mapping out your day, hour-by-hour. You’ll be less likely to waste time if you know you need to crank out that report by 2 p.m. in order to be ready for a client meeting at 3 p.m.

Make sure to schedule work breaks throughout the day to clear your head and fuel your body!

4. Build in Time for a Crisis

You wake up with a scratchy sore throat. Your dog/kid/parent has an emergency and they need you right away. Your computer completely malfunctions. There are myriad ways that life can get in the way of your to-do list. That’s why it’s critical to avoid working to deadlines in a way that gives you no room for a crisis.

This might mean setting deadlines in your calendar a few days before a client expects a project. That way you’re not careening to the finish line at the last minute and a life event doesn’t have the power to derail everything. These “pre-deadlines” can also serve as quality control. When we let work “sit” for a few days, we can tackle the final edit with fresh eyes, which often helps take things up a notch.



5. Get the Worst Done First

Have you heard the expression “eat the frog”? It refers to the act of tackling the hardest task on your list first, so your energy isn’t sapped by the dread you feel all day leading up to it. You can coast on your sense of accomplishment for hours and everything you do after will feel easy. This is an important deadline-busting habit no matter what kind of project you’re working on.

6. Avoid Multitasking

In our effort to conquer time management, business owners often try to whip off a number of tasks at the same time. Studies show that we are not as good at doing a few things at once as we think we are. In fact, some research suggests that multitasking can reduce productivity by up to 40%!

That’s the last thing you need when you’re struggling to meet a deadline. To be truly productive, devote all of your attention to one task at a time. You’ll be more focused, and will work smarter and more efficiently.

7. Ditch Social Media When You’re Working to Deadlines

For many small business owners, social media is just part of the job. But it’s never that simple, is it? We hop on social media for the right reasons, but we invariably stay for all the wrong ones. Writer Stacey Stein says she discovered a simple solution to the common problem. “I used to find myself getting lost in the Twitter rabbit hole … I deleted the app from my phone and boom—distraction gone!”

If you’re not ready to make that leap, at least disable notifications and/or put your phone in Do Not Disturb mode when you’re working on deadlines that require your complete focus.

8. Break Down Every Project to Make it More Manageable

The challenge of meeting tough deadlines is often compounded when we feel overwhelmed by the scope of the work. This is especially true when we try to complete projects at the last minute.

Make it psychologically easier on yourself by breaking down a big project into more manageable steps. Each step should be small enough that you can fit it into your day in one- to two-hour increments. This makes every project feel less intimidating and you benefit from the motivating feeling of satisfaction that comes with crossing a task off the list—and getting those tough deadlines met.

9. Understand Your Productivity Rhythms

When you’re aware of the time of day when you’re most efficient, you can start building your to-do items around it.

“What I’ve learned for me is that my ‘early morning brain’ is my best brain. I think better in the morning and work twice as fast. So, I give my ‘best brain’ to my work in the morning and generally do the chores (errands, invoicing, exercise, etc.) later in the day,” says freelance writer Paul Russell.

Next time you create your to-do list, make sure to schedule the items that require the most focus at your most productive time of the day. Meeting deadlines has never been so easy.

10. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

Too many deadlines and too few hours in the day? Have you considered that you don’t have to be the one to do all of them? Successful entrepreneurs know that delegation is key to getting to the next level. Can you outsource some of your work to a contractor or bring on an administrative assistant to help you out with the small stuff?

And delegating doesn’t have to be limited to people. Software can help cut some of your work in half, including:

  • FreshBooks: Track time, manage expenses, invoice and manage projects all in a few clicks
  • Calendly: Save the email back/forth and have your clients self-book appointments with you
  • Hubspot: Manage marketing and sales simultaneously, while saving time
  • Zirtual: Have a virtual personal assistant app reply to emails for you, manage travel plans, oversee your calendar and create schedules

11. Use Your Calendar to Track Deadlines and Schedule Productivity

Most projects will span across multiple days. Using a weekly or monthly calendar will help you schedule time every day to meet distant deadlines. Some people even add their to-do lists and hour-by-hour plans for the day straight into their calendar.

Google Sheets templates provide you with a calendar with even greater flexibility, which helps data-driven small business owners be as efficient as possible as they meet deadlines.

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12. Find a Deadline Accountability Partner

Your client isn’t your deadline accountability partner. They want to hand off the project to you and forget about it. A deadline accountability partner can be another freelancer, a friend/family member or even a virtual assistant.

The right partner won’t just ask if you’re working—they’ll hold you accountable for missing a milestone or slacking during a given day. Give them something to hold over you, like the power cable to your Xbox or calling you out over Slack.

Overcome Distractions and Meet Deadlines

When your livelihood rests on your ability to create great work under tight deadlines, it’s imperative that you find strategies to keep you organized and focused.

It may be helpful to avoid thinking of work deadlines as dreaded dates on your calendar. Instead, look forward to meeting them. Each one represents a satisfied client, an invoice on its way and the closure of a tough but satisfying project.

This post was updated in August, 2020.



about the author

Freelancer & FreshBooks Customer Heather Hudson has been a freelance writer for more than 17 years. As a small business owner, she understands the triumphs and challenges of life as an entrepreneur. And as a longtime FreshBooks customer, she’s always looking for ways to work smarter, not harder. You can learn more about her work at heatherhudson.ca.