Support and admin staff are often tasked with doing what it takes to ensure that an employee or project team executes their tasks on time. That means anticipating overdue tasks and initiating solutions before they're needed, ideally in an elegant and respectful way.

I've worked with team members who are afraid or slow to speak up when a team member who already has overdue items is in danger of missing an upcoming due date. Even though it's ideal to spot potentially overdue tasks well ahead of time, from a team culture perspective, they don't feel safe to say something. Some don't want to cause a rift in the team, and others don't want to create unnecessary conflict with other employees by micromanaging due dates not assigned to them. Or they have their own overdue tasks and don't want to draw attention to themselves.

I believe you can have the best of both worlds and avoid the negative side effects of overdue tasks -- namely, harming the experience of your stakeholders, users, customers, or clients -- with a little proactive leadership. Here are my 10 favorite ways to nicely ask for an overdue item, whether via email or live.

10 Ways to Politely Ask About Overdue Tasks

  1. Restate the need for the overdue item, the original deadline, and add implications of inaction and extension of support.
"This report had a due date of Friday afternoon so we'd have the weekend to course-correct. If we don't have this data, I won't be able to create the financial projections [Entrepreneur] needs for our incentive structure, and we'll put the team into rush mode over the weekend. How can we help?"
This is my go-to approach for overdue items because it's respectful, neutral, and offers support to the recipient. I love to build buffer time into my project timelines so there's time to spot overdue tasks before they endanger major milestones -- but realistically, the work cultures I'm seeing around the world today are managing way too many overdue tasks as a feature rather than a bug. Also, if there are any financial consequences, like overdue fines, late fees, or revenue implications, mention those.

2. Forward an email to "bump it up" with a request that would take under 2 minutes to fulfill.

"Hi there - I know you're busy. Bumping this up. Just need a yes/no - context in line 2. Send me a voice memo if it's easier!"
The right context can decrease the perceived effort or cognitive load required to give you the reply you need for the task. By rephrasing it as something they can do in 2 minutes or less, you automatically make the task seem too easy to ignore. As a bonus: If your recipient has studied David Allen's Getting Things Done system, they'll have heard of the 2-minute rule, which says that if something takes under 2 minutes to complete, do it right away. No chance of a task becoming overdue if it takes 2 minutes or less to do!

3. Forward an email and ask for a timeline.

"Will you please send me an update on this as soon as you can?
If the overdue task is excessively long, you may want to add a second line with a new due date, like: "I requested this a week ago - and I can still submit it on time if you send me [detail] by Friday at 3 pm EST."

4. Ask for a status update and offer help (and mean it).

"Are you still on track for this report? How can I help accelerate progress?"
Note the phrase "help accelerate progress." Offering help will either irritate the recipient into doing the task to prove they didn't need help or trigger a request for help that you can honor to unblock the project and maintain progress before the due date.

5. Proactively draft a response, restate the deadline, and ask for edits.

"I took a shot at drafting these interview questions, since the editor needs them Wednesday. Can you please personalize and edit as necessary? Here's the file to review."
It's often far easier for people to edit a draft than to stare at a screen or page and write a completed version. Proactively drafting gives people a preview of your intended outcome with the option to make it their own -- and you'll likely get it back long before its due date.

6. Humor (note: exercise discretion and tact, or this will backfire hard).

"Hey, any chance I can get this overdue report in the next decade?"
I've been exposed to many companies where crass humor is normal and expected in daily office culture, and the above example would be way too tame. Nuance and rapport can sell this strategy, but best to avoid in favor of one of the other options here.

7. Direct call or text.

"Please block time today to call our vendor. We owed him a decision last Friday and are a key account for their upcoming quarter."
By stating the magnitude, urgency, importance, or cost of the request, you give the person compelling reasons the task can't become overdue. Context is key.

8. Batch forward (See #2) with other pending items to force a time block.

Precede this missive with a short call or email that says something like, "Hi X, I'm awaiting several items from you that are preventing progress on Project Z. I'm going to forward them so they're at the top of your inbox. All I need is yes-no decisions on 5 things. All the context is in each email. Please call me if you need clarification or want to talk through it one by one."
When you need simple or fast answers, simplify your request and provide easier modalities to get your response. Can you rephrase your question so that it can be answered with a simple "yes," "no," a decision between a shortlist of options, or a 2-minute clarification? What's the fastest, easiest way for your recipient to quickly assess overdue or pending items and give you the clarity you need to proceed?

9. Suggest an alternate solution and problem-solve together.

Your colleague may be procrastinating because the project or process is incongruous with his or her work habits. "Would it be more appropriate if Chris started this task, and you came in for edits and revisions? What's an easier, faster way for us to make progress?"
This example applies teamwork and delegation from a place of support rather than judgment. Always a great touch, whether you're messaging employees, managers, leadership, strangers, or friends.

10. Reaffirm priorities and workload with the colleague.

"We originally decided that Task A would be due last Friday, but I know you're juggling multiple projects. Does Task A need to happen right now, or should we readjust the deadline to a more suitable time? What can we drop or delay to support you?"
Notice how this example creates an emotional connection. I intentionally decide to lead conversations about overdue tasks with love and compassion because in many cases, my teamwork with them requires effective delegation and trust so they can complete items for me.

Overdue Task Management is Expectation Management

There's no one-size-fits-all way to ask for an overdue item. Most project management tools and customer relationship management tools include built-in email reminders and follow-up tasks to mitigate overdue tasks; even Slack can automatically send you a notification to return to a message at a certain date and time.

While it can be frustrating to see a backlog of outstanding items days before a due date, employees may have different ideas of task priority and urgency. Or they're simply distracted, overworked, and would very much appreciate the reminder. Manage your own tasks and due dates in the way that best supports your progress, and remember: not everyone works the same way you do, and that's a good thing.

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