No – don’t run away! I know those are both horrible, horrible words, but I promise if you stay just a moment it won’t be so bad. Look, whatever job you’re in, whatever your life is like, we all need to be productive. And for the vast majority of people, that’s something that doesn’t come too easily. Which is why we have deadlines in our jobs, or the natural deadlines of life.
Deadlines, of course, are also soul-sucking, soul-destroying things that leave you stressed and awful. They should be avoided at all costs, right?
Well…no. Because they’re actually quite helpful. In fact, if we could all put more deadlines on things, we’d be a lot more productive in both work and home. Honestly, I actually think we should set ourselves deadlines for everything.
No. You’re joking.
I’m not joking.
Let’s take an example. You have a project for work, something a client needs. So you’ve got a deadline for it. That deadline might be short or it might be long, but either way it’s an inviolable line that – unless you’re really lucky – you’re required to meet. And so you do. Possibly kicking and screaming, but you’ll get there.
At home, your deadline might be something different. It might be that you’re going on holiday and you’ve got the deadline of having to have everything packed and the dog in the kennels and all sorts of other things. You’ll get those done too. You might not even think of that as a deadline.
So we bridge the gap.
Somewhere inbetween the inviolable line of a work deadline and the not-really-noticeable line of a home deadline, there’s got to be this happy medium. That ideal balance which you can use for the projects you want to get done. I’m especially thinking of writing, of course, but there’s plenty of other things it can apply to as well.
But how do we bridge that gap? I’ve set deadlines for writing before and completely failed to meet them. I’m sure you have too, plenty of times. In fact, if you’re anything like me, you actually failed so many times that you just gave up on deadlines altogether. I get that.
Unfortunately, there’s that awful thing that makes you better at meeting self-imposed deadlines…practice.
Uh…how do you practice meeting a deadline?
I’ve tried a whole bunch of things to make myself keep deadlines, but there are three that have worked for me above all else.
Bribery. Good, old-fashioned bribery. Set your deadline. If you meet it? You get something you want.
Establish straight away what that thing is. It doesn’t need to be something huge, but I’ve found it helps if you make it something you wouldn’t otherwise have gotten. Something you’ve wanted for a while.
I use this tactic for a bunch of things, and have pages in my project journal designed specifically for tracking the rewards I’m going to give myself when I hit certain milestones. It’s helped me not only meet those milestones, but celebrate when I’ve gotten to them.
Accountability. Tell someone you’ve got this deadline and suddenly, it’s like that deadline is an external one. Tell enough people and suddenly it’s even stronger.
Is this ideal? Not really. You’re essentially using your own guilt and fear of embarrassment against yourself in order to succeed. But that might not be the worst thing if it means that you can get this deadline met. And, let’s be fair, a lot of ways to train yourself to do things involve abusing guilt.
So tell people you’re making this deadline. Take part in something like Nanowrimo where the deadline is semi-external already. See if that helps you to get used to meeting a deadline that isn’t 100% required.
Repetition. Failure, we are so often told, is just a step on the path to success. I’ve failed to meet hundreds of self-imposed deadlines. I continue to do so, even now I’m in a place where I’ve gotten better and better at it.
So the most important thing is to not give up. Repetition is the most obvious form of practice, but that’s because it’s the most effective. You keep trying, keep repeating the exercise, eventually you’ll do it without thinking about it.
But remember to start small.
Much as I love Nanowrimo, I wouldn’t actually advocate immediately leaping into making yourself write a novel in 30 days. Make your initial deadline smaller. Is your goal to be writing a chapter a week? Do a chapter a month. Then a chapter a fortnight. Build it up slowly and steadily.
And most of all, and this is super important, be kind to yourself if and when you fail. Working to a deadline is a skill. It is a skill that you have to learn, and that means you are going to fail at it. Repeatedly. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be learning. And to be honest? Even people who’ve learned to do this aren’t perfect at it. You’re always going to fail sometimes.
Say that with me now: you’re always going to fail sometimes. And that’s okay. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be better. Trying to be better in the face of failure? That’s bravery. That’s the sort of reckless optimism you should be proud of, and treasure, and love.
Now go, my fearsome reckless warrior. Set yourself a deadline. Tell me about it! I’ll cheer if you make it and understand if you don’t.
If you want to come along for the ride of my own ups and downs with deadlines and more, come follow me on Twitter!