Does your next writing project have a deadline?
If not, I suggest you give yourself one. The larger the project, the more important it is to have a deadline.
Deadlines make the work better
There’s scientific research for this from Dan Ariely, described in his book Predictably Irrational. If you don’t want to read the whole book, find a short description on my post here: Deadlines Add Life to the Writing Process.
Not all deadlines are created equal. Some can force us to short-change the work, burn ourselves out, or otherwise lose the joy of writing. The key is finding the balance.
What Makes a Good Deadline
An effective deadline:
- Is tough but achievable – comfortably within the realm of possibility, but still requiring focused effort
- Allows enough time to do high quality work, if you schedule wisely
- Is near enough to motivate you to act now. (A one-year deadline is too far away, for example)
Getting this just right is important. Deadlines can be toxic and counter-productive if they:
- Don’t leave enough time for good work
- Prohibit necessary self-care and sleep
- Follow other deadlines relentlessly, one after the other, without time to rest and refresh
Creativity happens in the open spaces, the breathing room. If your attention is always focused on making a pending deadline, you have fewer mental cycles for creative work.
Deadlines Focus the Writer’s Mind
Most people think of deadlines as motivators–and they are. But even more important, they can help you focus on the important work.
A deadline that is challenging and close enough forces you to clear away the underbrush from your schedule:
- Checking email less often so you can work in focused bursts
- Saying “no” to commitments that aren’t as important as the scheduled project
- Prioritizing the project-related work in the most productive parts of your day
By reducing other distractions, you turn more of your mental cycles onto the work. Whether you’re actively writing or taking a break as you go about your day, your brain continues tinkering with the subject.
When I’m in the midst of writing a book, ideas will pop into my head early in the morning or while I’m driving. Conversations frequently surface interesting ideas. My brain is primed to find connections to the book, so it does, even when I’m not sitting and typing.
If you don’t have a deadline, make one up.
This blog is a living example of the power of a deadline to spur output. I’ve committed to myself to publish a new writing post every other week. (It used to be once a week, but see the note above about self-care.) Since switching to the every-other-week schedule, I’ve only stretched missed one date. No one seemed to notice, but that’s another story.
The self-imposed blog commitment keeps me thinking deeply about writing, speaking with others about their issues, and continuing to research. It’s a great exercise in sustaining cognitive empathy, by thinking of what others want and need to know.
Given the many urgent demands on our attention, it’s tempting to put aside the hard work of deep thought. Having a commitment helps.
If you don’t have deadlines for your work, impose them on yourself
Setting Your Own Deadlines
For a small writing project, like a blog post or book review, choose a date that is close enough to motivate you but leaves time for incubation.
Base the deadline on the work: Decide how you’ll allocate the work in that time period. For a blog post, you might:
- Research and outline Tuesday
- Write a rough draft Wednesday
- Polish and revise Thursday
- Publish Friday
Make the deadline visible. Put something up by your desk, or mark it with a bright color on your calendar. Commit to yourself, and if that’s not enough, commit to someone else. (“I will post this blog on Friday.”)
For a longer project like writing a book, break the task into smaller pieces with multiple component deadlines. For example:
- By the end of July, I will have completed the first pass of research, reviewing the top academic publications on the subject and reading four books I’ve identified as critical
- By the end of August I will have scheduled interviews with 20 subject matter experts
- By September 30 I will have completed by second pass of research and all interviews
- By October 31 I will have a book proposal and chapter outline
Remember, make it urgent enough to encourage deep work, but not so urgent that you cannot sleep, relax, or give your brain a break.