Dealing With Deadline Anxiety

Dealing With Deadline Anxiety was originally published on Vault.

You’ve procrastinated to the point the deadline is looming and you ask yourself, “Why do I keep doing this?” Waiting until the last minute to complete a task is commonplace for some—maybe you were sidetracked by another task; maybe something personal came up; or maybe you have deadline anxiety.

Deadline anxiety is a feeling of stress or unease that people experience when they are facing an upcoming deadline or a due date.[i] When you become a lawyer, you take on a job with lots of deadlines both big (like deal timelines, trials, motion and brief work) and small (like client correspondence and discovery requests). Managing expectations can take a lot out of you both physically and mentally.

Dangers of Deadline Anxiety

Deadline anxiety can have significant physical effects on the body. When a person experiences stress or anxiety, the body releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which can cause physical symptoms such as:

  1. Increased heart rate: Stress can cause an increase in heart rate, leading to feelings of nervousness or palpitations.
  2. Muscle tension: People may experience muscle tension or aches, particularly in the neck, back, or shoulders, because of stress.
  3. Headaches: Stress and tension headaches are a common physical symptom of deadline anxiety.
  4. Digestive problems: Stress can affect digestion, leading to symptoms such as nausea, upset stomach, or diarrhea.
  5. Sleep problems: Anxiety and stress can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, leading to feelings of fatigue and decreased productivity.
  6. Weakness or fatigue: Chronic stress can lead to feelings of weakness or fatigue, making it difficult to complete tasks effectively.[ii]

It’s important to be aware of the physical symptoms of deadline anxiety to reduce its effects on the body. Self-care is an important aspect of managing stress, and there are many different strategies that can be helpful.[iii] Some effective self-care practices for reducing anxiety include:

  1. Exercise:  Regular physical activity is vital in managing stress. Find a way to incorporate exercise into your busy life. Activities like jogging, yoga, or swimming, can help reduce stress and improve your mood.
  2. Mindfulness and meditation:  Engaging in mindfulness practices, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, can help calm the mind and reduce anxiety. Many firms offer mindfulness apps or sessions for employees, so take advantage of them. Even a few minutes of mindfulness can help ease stress.
  3. Relaxation techniques:  Relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery, can help reduce muscle tension and stress. Find one that works for you and take a few moments to recharge.
  4. Good nutrition:  Eating a healthy and balanced diet can provide essential nutrients that help the body cope with stress. It can be hard to eat right when you are working long hours. Try a meal subscription plan, or take advantage of your firm’s cafeteria to nourish your body.
  5. Adequate sleep:  Everyone knows getting enough sleep is important for overall health and can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. There are many ways to improve sleep, from establishing a good bedtime routine to unplugging from your devices.
  6. Social and professional support:  Getting together with friends and family or participating in social activities can provide a sense of connection and help reduce feelings of isolation and anxiety. Even sharing with others that you are experiencing anxiety can help. If anxiety is truly debilitating, seek professional help.
  7. Hobbies and interests:  Engaging in activities you enjoy can do wonders for your mental and physical health. Find what you enjoy and make time for it, whether it be reading, music, or cooking. Having something to look forward to (other than more work) will ease your stress levels.

Find what self-care strategies work best for you and make them a regular part of your routine. Incorporating a combination of physical, emotional, and mental self-care practices are effective ways to manage your stress and to reduce anxiety.

How to Work Through Deadline Anxiety

In addition to managing the physical symptoms of deadline anxiety, it is important to set yourself up for success, so you don’t get stressed in the first place. Here are some things you can do to make completing the task easier on your physical and mental health:

  1. Make a plan:  Breaking a large project into smaller, manageable tasks and creating a schedule can help you feel more in control and reduce stress. Prioritize tasks based on their level of importance and stick to your plan as much as possible.
  2. Stay organized:  Keep track of your progress and what still needs to be done. This can help you see the progress you’ve made and keep you motivated. Having a clear and organized workspace can help reduce stress and increase focus, making it easier to avoid procrastination.
  3. Use a timer:  Set a timer for a specific amount of time, and work on a task for that period. Repeat as needed and reward yourself when you complete the task. Holding yourself accountable for your actions can help keep you motivated and focused. Set realistic timelines and be honest about how much time it will actually take to complete the task.
  4. Take breaks:  Regular breaks can help reduce stress and improve focus. A short break every hour or so can clear your head and help you relax and recharge. Simple things like stretching, taking a walk, or meditating for a few minutes will allow you to come back and focus on the assignment.
  5. Eliminate distractions:  Identify the distractions that cause you to procrastinate. Make a mindful decision to minimize them as much as possible. Try turning off your phone notifications, closing unnecessary tabs on your computer, or finding a quiet place to work. Block time off on your calendar so that others know you are busy.
  6. Ask for help:  Don’t be afraid to reach out to others for support. This can include asking for a deadline extension, delegating smaller portions of the assignment, and getting assistance prioritizing your current workload. It’s important to seek help if you need it as early as possible, and not to wait until the last minute.
  7. Be realistic:  It’s important to have realistic expectations and to understand that it’s OK if things don’t always go as planned. Be kind to yourself, and don’t beat yourself up if you encounter setbacks or challenges. Stay as close as you can to the plan you made to meet your deadline.
  8. Give yourself (extra) time:  If the deadline is Friday, aim to have the work complete a couple days ahead of time. The extra time will allow you a grace period if some of the work takes longer than you expected. It also allows for time to fix anything that may come up at the last minute. If you finish ahead of schedule, pat yourself on the back for beating that deadline!

The practice of law is inherently stressful. There are always demands, both physical and mental, that make it seem impossible to overcome the stress associated with being a lawyer. Being mindful of the harmful effects stress can have on your body, and consciously preparing yourself to handle that stress, can improve your ability to stay healthy and focused. There may be no escaping last minute work and high stakes, but how you handle those pressures is up to you. Try taking some of these steps to keep yourself happy and healthy, and with as little deadline anxiety as possible.

[i] (2019, March 6). Three-Quarters of Workers Are Stressed, Says New CareerCast Survey.

[ii] [ii] Key, K. (2015, June 15). The Dark Side of Deadlines.

[iii] (2022, March 14). How and Why to Practice Self-care.