As a freelance sports reporter I grew accustom to working under deadlines. If your game was slotted for the paper then your write up better beat the print deadline, regardless of whether or not your game went long. I quickly learned that deadlines were a great way to elevate your heart rate and raise the old blood pressure, particularly when the sports desk was calling for an update on your submission.
Fun Fact: the term deadline came from a line drawn around a military prison. Cross the line and get shot…dead.
For more creative and less structured pursuits I have found success when applying self-imposed deadlines (the newspaper kind, not the military prison kind). When writing my first novel, available February 9, 2016 (shameless plug), I kicked around the idea for nearly fifteen years before I got serious. I began writing my story in early 2013 and made wonderful progress until mid-summer. I went months without writing and when I picked it up again I tortured myself for the time lost. I decided not to let that happen again. For 2014 I would have one goal and one goal only. Finish my book. I already had a good start and a framework for how to proceed. I just needed to push myself to do the actual work.
In the hopes of being helpful (It’s Called Helping…You’reWelcome) I wanted to share how I did it, what worked well, and what didn’t.
First, I set a deadline. I chose my birthday (November 4th for those who’d like to send gifts) as an arbitrary date of completion. In hindsight that was pretty stupid. I did not consider my project or my progress in selecting the date. I had no idea if I could make it by then or if it would even take that long, and I didn’t specify what “completion” meant. Was that my first draft or my final? Turns out I finished my first draft in August but several re-writes later I did make my November deadline with a final draft.
You need to be specific and qualify what success will look like. You also need to be realistic but at the same time remove the wiggle room from your inner procrastinator. You aren’t going to write a full length novel in four weeks but at the same time I shouldn’t give myself four weeks to, say, write this blog. There’s no formula for striking this balance but you know you. Be honest, set goals that you can reach and be prepared to hold yourself accountable.
The second thing I did was to set smaller, short term, goals. This was my attempt to be specific and this was actually the most helpful thing I did. I set daily writing goals. First, I tried to set a page count but that didn’t work for me. Some days I could crank out four pages while other days I could hardly muster one. I quickly abandoned that and set daily time-based goals. I blocked out time in my schedule and devoted that to writing. Regardless of the progress I made I could look at the day and honestly say I devoted the prescribed amount of time to my goal, rather than crucify myself for not making a page count. The key is setting attainable goals. Being rigid and inflexible is counterproductive. Don’t excuse yourself or let yourself off the hook, however, be willing to adapt your short term goals to something that makes sense for you and can create momentum.
Next, involve someone else. I am very protective of my stories and didn’t tell too many people what I was working on, but I know me and if I didn’t have someone to be accountable to things might slide. I enlisted my wife as my editor and accountability buddy. I would give her pages, a chapter at a time, and report my progress to her. She wasn’t the goal police but it helped to have someone who would know if I failed to follow through with what I set out to do. One thing that I wished I had done was to post a timeline somewhere I could see it. That is something I have done this time around and it has already yielded huge benefits. Not only do I have a reminder of where I’m headed but I have a visual representation of how I am doing, which makes the next step easier.
Celebrate your accomplishments. When you set a goal set a reward for meeting that goal while you’re at it. For instance, I wanted to complete chapter three of my current project by the end of this week and if I did I was going to write this blog entry on self-imposed deadlines. (That’s right, I know how to get down) Check and check. It feels good.
The flip side, though, is holding yourself accountable if you fail to meet your deadline. I am not suggesting you hire prison guards to shoot you if you pass a deadline (although that would no doubt be effective), but you should definitely forgo any carrot you dangled for yourself and possibly impose a penalty that will hurt. I decided that if I did not complete my manuscript by my deadline that there would be no birthday freebies for me. For those of you who know me, you know how painful that would have been. Fortunately, I enjoyed my BBQ Bacon Blue Burger at Joe’s Farm Grill and my wife was spared watching me sob in the fetal position all day long on my birthday.
So this time around I nearly made the same mistakes again. I arbitrarily set the end of the year as a target for my next project, however, when I looked at where I was and what needed to be done I moved my date to February 9th. (Where have I seen that date before?) So now I guess you are all my accountability buddies. I have the schedule up on my whiteboard and a series of smaller rewards (yes they are food based, don’t judge). If I don’t make my deadline I want you all to come up to me at my launch party with a disappointed look on your face and shake your head in haughty derision. (Penalty imposed)