Writers and artists are almost always marvelously productive human beings able to generate huge quantities of work, amounts of work which put people in other walks of life to shame. They are concerned with their production and pay close attention to it—did you write your 500 words today; did you finish painting that corner of the canvas before quitting for dinner? If production falls off, they want to know why, and if good work pours out of them fluently, they want to know why that is happening too.
Hard as I try, I find it difficult to imagine any writer or artist—amateur or professional, novice or expert–who hasn’t had production deadlines to meet, and it’s not unusual for them to have had problems meeting them at least once or twice, and possibly more frequently than that. You’ve heard it said, and maybe you’ve said it yourself when you’ve been under the pressure of a tight deadline and are having trouble meeting it: “This deadline is important. It’s in the contract, and it’s very clear.” Think how ominous the word is. It’s not a “lifeline,” but a “dead” line, as though if you exceed it you’re a goner.
You have a task that you’re supposed to finish by 2:00. Or it may be by next Tuesday, or one year from Tuesday. There’s some kind of principle or another—Murphy’s Law–that goes, “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.” Let’s say you start to work and encounter a setback. You begin thinking, “I’m falling behind.” You’re not worried and you continue on, but you run up against another snag or block that slows you down more. More work, another snag; the ideas just won’t come, or you can’t find a concept for the drawing, or your computer crashes, and it will be a long time before it’s fixed. (I had that problem once and was told there was a backlog and that I’d have to shut down for ten days while I waited for a repair person. But I had a deadline to meet, and I really couldn’t wait ten days. So I called the national president of my internet service provider at that time, AT&T, and had a nice conversation with his personal assistant. I explained to her that I was an author and had a book to get out to the publisher right away, so I needed my computer to work. She was an avid reader which I think helped. A repairman was ringing my doorbell at 8:00 the next morning. By 8:20 I was back at work, everything copacetic, things under control.) Or you move out of your old place into a new place or have a baby, and your work comes to a standstill. A crack in your confidence then appears. You soon begin to conjure up a grim chain of possible events: “If I don’t finish this assignment-story-novel-report-painting-lithograph on time, this might happen and that and that, and that would be very bad.” And then there are other slowdowns and still more. Eventually you think, “Oh, God, no matter what, I can’t possibly finish on time. My butt’s in a sling. What a predicament.”
Strategies for Freeing Yourself from Deadline Difficulties
- Pay not the slightest attention to the deadline. You have only so much attention. It’s not divisible. If it’s on one thing, it can’t be on another. Resist any inclination to worry about the deadline. Fix it in your mind once, enter it on a calendar, then get to work immediately. Whatever attention you devote to fretting about it is that much less you can devote to the job at hand. Yet that’s where your mind should be totally focused. It will be helpful if you are able to be dispassionate and non-attached. Perfectly unworried.
Archery contests are held at a temple in Japan and the best archers compete. The object of the contest is to see how many arrows the marksmen can shoot from one end of a 128 yard long veranda into a target on the other end in one day. The ceiling of the veranda is very low, and the archer has to shoot without much arch. That requires considerable strength and is exhausting. The record is 8,133, or about five arrows every minute for twenty-four consecutive grueling hours. Now how many arrows would the archer have shot if he stopped to fret about the deadline? Certainly not 8,133.
No matter what, we must refuse to let our mind waver from the job at hand, agonizing less about the deadline, absorbing ourselves in tasks, just shooting our arrows, just punching away at the keyboard, just drawing lines. The more we remain firm and focused, shifting our minds again and again persistently to what is in front of us that needs doing, the higher the quality of the work we produce will be and the sooner the work will be accomplished.
- Remember that some time pressure actually enhances performance. There are many things we would never have completed if we hadn’t had a deadline to prod us. In school you had papers to write or a drawing to do. You were forewarned: it was due in four weeks. If you were like most students, you put it off for three weeks, six days and 19 hours. You stayed up the night before and, bleary-eyed and rendered useless the rest of the day, turned it in on time. There you are; you obeyed another principle: work tends to expand to fill the time available for its completion. So had you just one week, you would have finished it in one week, and would have finished it on time had you had only five hours.
- Bear in mind, however, that unrealistic deadlines create too much pressure, and too much pressure interferes with performance. You worry. You tighten up. You lose focus. After a while when you’ve fallen behind, you find yourself beginning to pay more attention to the deadline than to doing well what needs doing. The need to finish on time gets more urgent and you start taking shortcuts. You really don’t want to, but you’re lowering your usually high standards and getting sloppy and the work’s quality is falling off.
- If you have any say in the matter make the deadline reasonable. Realistic deadlines motivate performance. I’ll confess: I’m a naturally excitable person, and I used to get very stirred up and to be too optimistic about reaching any deadline that I set. At times my staff had to work ridiculously long hours and on weekends and holidays and even while they were sick to meet them. So I devised a simple precaution which I called “the kick.” When I was asked by a client to estimate how long a job would take, an associate would kick me under the table. That was the signal to increase my estimate by 30%. Never let your enthusiasm exceed your better judgment. Can you use some version of the kick?
- Choose deadline-beating thoughts, not worry-creators. You are inwardly free to replace one thought with another whenever you want. Instead of, “I’m losing ground,” replace it with, “I’m making progress. I’m whittling this baby down,” or “Every time I stop to look at the clock (or the calendar) I’m wasting time.” “I’m going to have the focus of those archers.”
- Accept the deadline as an exciting challenge. When I was working on a particular book, as I turned in one chapter after another, the editor thought, “This is pretty good stuff, and it’s getting better and better. This book is going to make money.” She told the publisher, “I think we have something.” The publisher then said to her, “The longer his book, the larger the cover price we can charge. Have him double the number of words we contracted for (from 60,000 to 120,000 words). And let him know since the book is so good, we’ll want an earlier pub date. Finish with it as soon as possible.” So the length was doubled and time pressure increased. Rather than the usual “cut, cut, cut” I had to think “add, add, add.” I could have renegotiated, but accepted the new terms as a challenge and didn’t ask for any more time. I just worked longer hours (an extra writing shift every night), and everything went well.
- In some cases, renegotiate the deadline. When you do not see the time constraint as challenging, but rather as completely unrealistic, renegotiation makes sense. No one wants you not to meet the deadline.
- Overcome the causes of the snags and slowdowns. For example, often a person’s failure to meet a deadline isn’t that person’s fault at all, but of someone else’s failure to meet their deadline. If you can help them overcome their snags it will help you overcome yours.
I don’t think American novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)—that master of language–ever met a single deadline his entire career. When you’re as talented as Wolfe, you can get away with murder. Until you can get away with murder too, you will have to find effective ways to handle your deadlines, striving never to be late.
© 2015 David J. Rogers
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