Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Deadlines and Commitments

Most of us are trained from an early age to work toward delivery deadlines. In early grades, there is homework due the next day. In later grades, term papers are added.

Now, rushing to meet a deadline and working under pressure is a bad idea for most of us, but we can use deadlines and commitments to maintain (or even raise) our productivity. They can help by:
  • Encouraging us to plan out our work, with specific task toward delivery done each day.
  • Putting a line under a project so we stop tweaking beyond what is reasonable.
  • Providing a sense of the arc of our careers, with measured milestones.
  • Providing a point for reflection -- we can schedule a real post mortem of a project only when it is done. (More on project post mortems tomorrow.)
  • Giving us a date at which we can share a project without dissipating our interest. (Too often, people use up their enthusiasm before a work is finished because they get the elicit praise prematurely.)
Other than spec work, my nonfiction work always has deadlines. For fiction, I've had to find ways to set my own. Here's some of what I've done:
  • Estimate the hours left based on my history and individual tasks (rewrite a scene, not write a novel), add 50%, and mark the date on a calendar.
  • Work toward a contest deadline. (There are lots of contests out there. Check out Stephie Smith's matrix for examples.)
  • Join an online writers group with a regular page requirement.
Of course, you can achieve something similar with commitments. Many writers have time or word requirements for each day. Aimee Bender suggests a contract with a friend. And I've suggested making a commitment to yourself each day for the next day's work.

What transforms these commitments into finished works is getting them working toward an overall goal and making sure that they include all the steps toward creating a final work. I know diligent writers who create nothing but first drafts (often incomplete) or who have been rewriting the same book for years.

Most of us have been pushed by the education apparatus to make deadlines and commitments part of our work process. I have mixed feelings about what that does to us. Do we lose some of our creativity? Does it cause us to spend less time in the moment? Do we miss experiences and mute our responses? Probably all of the above. But, since we have internalized deadlines and commitments, why shouldn't put them to work to make us more productive writers?


  1. Deadlines are a huge help. One of the reasons I do NaNo every year is that forced deadline. Plus the idea of not winning if I don't finish really brings out my personal competitive spirit. ;-)

  2. Hi, Gwen
    I'm glad you brought up NaNoWriMo. It has been a great help for a lot of people. During this summer, my local chapter has had regular "sprints" (complete with FB singalongs) that have helped people stay on target, and the "left behinds" who did not get to the national conference challenged themselves to put together a total wordage that would shock and awe those who were at the conference.
    There are a lot of creative ways to use community and goals to up productivity.

  3. I have a deadline in two months, and I'll tell you, it certainly has gotten my butt in gear. I used to be really competitive, and would do anything to be the best or fastest at something. Unfortunately, after I reached a phase of motherhood, some of that fell to the wayside--sometimes I feel too tired to be competitive! But I'm trying. I think failing a couple of times has made me complacent. I need a positive push, I need to accomplish something and feel that rush again so I remember what it's like!

    We have a few killers in our group, Peter (well, figuratively)! I hope to be able to join their ranks :).

  4. Hi, Melanie
    Life does get in the way. Being surrounded by productive people provides a great goad to get back to the work. And, when I feel overwhelmed, I find it useful to create smaller goals so I can build a pattern of successes.
    Thanks for commenting!

  5. After posting this, I ran across a related post by Carol Tice, Getting it Done: A Guide to Productive Goal-Setting for Freelancers
    http://www.makealivingwriting.com/2012/08/20/set-goals-freelancers/?utm_campaign=fd84660fd1-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_source=buffer&buffer_share=393d6 Take a look.