Dealing with Deadline Dread

don't need time, need a deadline quote

I don't need time. What I need is a deadline - Duke Ellington

Writers often think that a lack of time is the problem, but, as Duke Ellington noted, what’s needed is a deadline.

A good deadline can take an aimless, undisciplined writer and hone her into lean, mean writing machine: productive, professional, and poised. The trouble is most people see deadlines as torture rather than tools.

Deadline dread is the status quo for anyone who’s writing seriously. The ticking clock has the power to  transform a mild-mannered word nerd into a flustered cranky-pants. But correctly used, deadlines hold a dynamic power for good.

Deadlines as a Harness

Without a deadline, some big projects are like wild horses running amok–or running away. See the deadline as your harness to rein that baby in.  By assigning a start and finish time, you are bracketing a project. It takes on the characteristics of a good goal, becoming concrete, time-bound, and achievable–more than it ever was as a rearing, neighing, stomping idea in your head.

Deadlines as a Hallmark of a Pro

A pro is someone who gets things done on time. Late dentists and tardy lawyers don’t inspire confidence. They’re professionals, after all. To upgrade your status of writer from “aspiring” or “hobbyist” or (God forbid) dilettante, make yourself work to deadlines. Be a pro.

Deadlines As Inspiration

It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true. Deadlines inspire creativity. A blank page and oodles of time–these are the culprits of procrastination. But a looming deadline forces people to think smart and work smart. Even Neil Gaiman uses deadlines as inspiration.

“Real” Deadline or Dummy Deadline

Real deadlines are handed down from editors, clients, and contracts. Dummy deadlines are ones we concoct. We tap into our latent sadism, and we hand ourselves a nice, hard deadline. We do this to move forward, to break out of the fear that freezes us or the Resistance that hamstrings us. A dummy deadline is a choice arrow in the writer’s quiver.

Dummies that Deliver

In order to be effective, a dummy deadline has to mean something–to you. A real deadline works because it’s attached to money or prestige or both. Meet the deadline and you get paid. Or your name appears in lights on a big-shot blog. Give your dummy deadlines some wallop by making it meaningful.

How do you do this? A couple of ways, but the important thing is to make yourself feel the consequences of not making your deadline.

Go public–set a deadline and publicise it on your blog. “I post every week on Tuesday and Thursday.” “A PDF of the newsletter will arrive in your inbox every Saturday.” These expectations give the deadline some oomph. If you miss it, you might not lose your job (because you’re a nice boss of yourself, right?) But you will look like a dill to everyone on your mailing list or to all your readers. And nobody wants to look like a dill, right?

Hit your hip pocket— set a deadline and when you miss it, make yourself pay an amount to a charity of your choice. There are lots of excellent literary charities out there, like The Pyjama Foundation or The Indigenous Literacy Foundation. For fun, you could make yourself pay on a random Donate Now button so many blogs have–or pay a donation to Wikipedia!

Healthy and Unhealthy Pressure

Deadlines can do a lot for us, but it’s worth noting that pressure is a double-edged sword. One blade motivates while the other stymies. Elite athletes know this well: some pressure can make them perform optimally, but too much and they flub things up. Finding the right balance is important. It’s like caffeine: a cup of coffee in the morning perks us up, but a pot of coffee at night overstimulates. One is reasonably healthy; the other is stupid.

Procrastination, poor time management, and taking on more work than you can handle are problematic. It’s important to use wisdom and to be centred enough to know your motives. If you find yourself constantly procrastinating or saying Yes to your own detriment, try journalling to sort out what’s happening on an emotional level. A Life Coach or counsellor can help with this too.

Dread Deadlines No More

The thing to remember is that you choose how you will frame the deadline: an implement of torture devised to make your life hell…or a tool in your writing kit.

Have you got any tips to share about deadlines? Leave a comment!



7 responses to “Dealing with Deadline Dread”

  1. Hi Ali,
    Thanks for this post.
    Like you, I LOVE deadlines.
    I write for a magazine and my deadline is the 16th of each month.
    I do my best writing under pressure
    PS Congrats on your new Writing gig as a Mag writer … Cheers, Karen 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Karen! The blank page can be terrifying, and unlimited time (for me) leads to faffing about. Set a deadline, and both problems are solved!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I have a love hate relationship with deadlines but they do make me more productive. I need to set more of my own. Good advice, Ali. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Deadlines are lifelines to making us finish that line of to dos in our heads and to take our imagined story out of the mind and into someone elses head! One tip I have is when juggling a lot of deadlines, prioritise and keep it realistic so that you have a chance of finishing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A deadline is a lifeline for the writer to finally take that imagined and rehearsed story and make it tangible and readable. I find writing for projects and a purpose makes you create these lifelines as you want to reach the people who can benefit or enjoy what you’re cooking up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree June! I learned this early on with my writing. I researched writing competitions and marked them on my calendar. These became my deadlines and my focus. Having a project to work on with a definite goal made me write smarter!

      Liked by 1 person

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