As the business world shifts and settles into the more mobile, collaborative structure of industries gone agile, more and more people find themselves acting as project managers — without any formal training. The internet is filled with advice from the pros; downloadable guides, crowdsourced book projects, and tip after tip. After tip. But even with all that exposure, project management still has one dirty little secret left: those deadlines you’re so worried about? They don’t really matter after all.

The Due Date Dilemma

Said one developer to the Harvard Business Review, “Everybody knows the schedule is a joke, and we pay no attention to it. It will be done when it’s done.” It’s scary to think about, and more than a little difficult to swallow that all of those hours spent meticulously tracking deadlines could have been a waste.

The reason experienced PMs don’t always sweat the schedule is because they accept the unpredictable nature of project variables. So much of being a project manager is dealing with the unknown, juggling people, resources, and tasks, that the little amount of time they have left can’t be spent agonizing over arbitrary due dates. More than that, projects that escape deadlines don’t simply vanish. They still have to be completed, and finding your team at the mercy of budgets, restricted assets, and absent or unresponsive people are typical frustrations that can leave due dates in the dust. So what if we just skipped them altogether?

While it seems completely contrary to suggest that project managers abandon their beloved calendars, think about it: when deadlines loom and the assignment’s not ready, one of two things usually happens. Either the task gets done in a stressful, hasty rush, or it’s allotted an extension — which most people will use as an excuse to put off the assignment.

Consider the idea that allowing team contributors to honestly assess their workload and priorities — and provide PMs with realistic timelines, or flow in assignments as a regular part of their activities — might actually make them more productive and efficient. Says Natasha Murashev of Reorg, “When you assign due dates for every tiny little part of the project, you are creating an awkward power dynamic between you and your team.” After all, it’s been noted that micromanagement kills engagement, and employee investment is a key component of productivity.

Implementing a Flexible Calendar: Giving it a Try

Project managers are typically great at what they do because they maintain control over minutiae, and diverting from the usual advice of carefully mapping project details won’t be easy. We’re not talking about eliminating timelines altogether — you have customers to serve, after all — but relaxing the reins will allow PMs to focus more on the quality of deliverables. Keep the following in mind to ease the transition from strict to yielding, and boost your efficiency in the process:

  • Tasks rarely get done on time, anyway. If you’re already allowing extensions, you’ve already planned for this inevitability, so embrace it.
  • You’re not the best estimator of someone else’s time. Their priorities are not always going to sync up with yours, so instead, allow them to determine the importance of tasks. When they’ve given you a timeline, you can either compromise with them or build it into your own schedule.
  • Set personal completion estimations, and encourage your team to do the same. If you know something absolutely must be done in three weeks, plan to finish it in two, particularly if your task impacts the start of someone else’s.
  • Estimate workflow based on labor-hours, not calendar days. It’s more accurate and accounts for time spent on-task, not just at work.
  • Keep the lines of communication open and continuous. You might not be checking off a list, but you should always be checking in.
  • Keep your customers (or stakeholders) in the loop. Updates should extend beyond team members to anyone that might be invested in, or affected by, the outcome.

Want to learn more? Download Mindjet’s free quick-ref guide, the 25 Secrets of Successful Project Managers.