OUR RELATIONSHIP TO DEADLINES IS COMPLICATED. From the time we start school — and sometimes even before — we are subject to deadlines in almost every aspect of our lives, from homework to after-school sports. As adults, deadlines stretch from projects at work to bills and taxes due.
If you detest deadlines, I’m here to tell you that when it comes to your writing life deadlines can be your best friends. When you have a healthy relationship to deadlines, you’ll get more done and feel good about it. (If you already use deadlines to improve your productivity, read on for validation and some additional tips to improve your deadlines’ efficacy.)
- Deadlines force you to prioritize and think through the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your writing project.
- You’re more likely to make time to work on a project when you have a deadline to meet.
- Researchers have found that deadlines — even self-imposed deadlines — significantly boost productivity, and that without them we tend to procrastinate.
- Deadlines help you push yourself to complete a project, even when you don’t feel like it.
- When you have a writing deadline, your goal shifts from writing the best story you could ever write to writing the best story you can write in a limited amount of time. This shift causes you to use your time and resources more wisely.
- Deadlines are the antidote to perfectionism. No work is going to be perfect, and a deadline provides a date to release your work — to give it to a beta reader or critique group to read, or send it to your agent or editor — instead of holding onto it to “make it just right.”
How to Set Deadlines that Work
Be Realistic. A common mistake is to underestimate how long it will take to complete a particular piece of writing, so we unintentionally set a deadline that is nearly impossible to achieve. As an example, when I first started blogging, I expected to be able to write and post an article in less that an hour. However, I’ve found that I need to set aside a total of at least two to three hours to research, write, and post a typical article on my blog. With my current schedule of two posts per week, that means I need to schedule six hours each week to write my blog articles.
According to Wikipedia, Hofstadter (creator of Hofstadter’s Law) said, “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” In order to ensure you meet your deadline, give yourself a little “wiggle room.”
Set Your Deadline First. When it comes to writing projects, they could go on indefinitely. For best results, set your deadline, and then figure out how you will achieve it.
Break your big project and deadline down into smaller tasks, each with their own deadline. As I mentioned above, I spread my blog-writing time out over the week, thirty to sixty minutes at a time, so I don’t have to write six hours in one sitting to meet my weekly publication deadlines. My task is to accomplish a certain number of words, and my deadline is each weekday.
If you have set a long deadline to finish your book by the end of the year, break that down into smaller deadlines, for instance one chapter per week.
Write down your deadlines. And put them where you can see them. Keep them front and center.
Set reminders that pop up on your calendar and/or phone.
Review Your Progress. To know if you will meet a longer deadline, you have to review your progress from time to time and then, if necessary, make adjustments to your schedule or methods.
Write, then revise. Set a hard deadline for getting that first draft done. Then set a more relaxed deadline to revise and polish your work. Making it a priority to get that first draft down will help prevent getting caught up in endless editing.
Engage Others to Hold You Accountable. Join a critique group and make a commitment to bring one scene or piece of writing to each meeting. Post your goal on social media and ask people to check in with you from time to time. Or ask a trusted friend or partner to ask you about your progress.
Use Positive and Negative Consequences for Motivation. Deadlines aren’t really deadlines without consequences. A naturally positive consequence of meeting a deadline is feeling good about your achievement. You can create other rewards. For example, I love my daily walk, so my walk can be used as a reward for meeting a specific deadline. For completion of larger projects, you could celebrate by going out for dinner, buying something you’ve been wanting, or pampering yourself in some way.
Conversely, if you miss your deadline, you’re not allowed to do that thing you’ve been looking forward to. Also, if you have asked others to help you be accountable, you’ve set yourself up to experience some embarrassment — a powerful motivator — if you don’t meet that deadline.
As you can see, if deadlines are set up right and embraced, they can be your best friends when it comes to being a truly productive writer.