We love to bitch about deadlines, but there is a certain appeal when they are imposed upon us. We know up front when something is due, and we know what the consequences are for not meeting the deadline.
Deadlines help creatives create. But what if there is no external deadline– no gallery publicizing the opening date of a gallery show, no recording studio booked, no editor waiting on a manuscript?
That is what I’ll face for the next two months as a creative writer, now that I’ve finished my first MFA semester. I’ve grown accustomed to MFA creative writing and critical essay packets being due every four weeks. So I know I should impose my own deadlines, to ensure I keep writing. But what will it take for me to honor those deadlines?
Some writers rely on peer pressure. It could be informal, say a writing buddy or a local writer’s group. Or it could be highly organized, like NaNoWriMo, in which would-be novelists meet word-count goals simultaneous with thousands of strangers online. There’s a lot to be said for using others to hold you accountable. It’s easier to diet when your spouse joins you. It’s easier to go to the gym when a friend is waiting there for you.
But there are limits to what you can ask of others. Are there consequences for failure? Will your writer’s group kick you out if you don’t produce pages that month? I’ll bet a lot of us are guilty of showing up at a book club without having read the book, but we still get to enjoy the company of friends. And does a system designed to accommodate tens of thousands, like NaNoWriMo, always work with your particular creative needs? What if you need to produce raw pages not in November but March, or you wish in November not to write raw material but fine-tune a rough draft into a polished manuscript?
I’ve spent some time reflecting on the challenge of creating, and adhering to, self-set deadlines. Here are five steps I intend to follow:
- Be realistic. You know this from starting a diet. It’s useful to set weight-loss goals, but if you’re too ambitious you set yourself up for failure.
- Set interim goals. Keeping with the weight-loss metaphor, you set up your weight-loss goals in increments of, say, a half-pound at a time. The overall goal is less daunting and you have more opportunities to log success.
- Mark your progress. I track my project deadlines on a large whiteboard wall. Maybe you’ll want to use a wall calendar, or a to-to list or printed spreadsheet taped to your monitor. I do feel that even if you track progress digitally, you should have an easily visible physical representation of it, so you have both the satisfaction of drawing a line to mark your progress, and reminders of your progress every time you walk by the display.
- Celebrate victories. You know yourself better than anyone; yes, even more than your virtual NaNoWriMo friends. What treat will you allow yourself for each internal deadline? A bubble bath? How about meeting the final deadline? A spa weekend? You can apply a little bit of that pressure that comes from an external deadline if you book that spa in advance and arrange for your kids to spend the weekend with your sister.
- Accept the consequences of failure. This is a bit harsh. But maybe you need to tell yourself that if you haven’t reached your goal by your spa weekend, you will eat the cost of that reservation. You will ignore your kids’ frustration at missing out on the visit with your sister, who serves bacon with every meal. (Can I go in their place?) I’m more of a positive reinforcement kind of guy, but part of the power of external deadlines is the reality of negative consequences if you fall short.
I’ll still be busy with my MFA the next two months. Shortly I’ll be receiving a packet of about a dozen other students’ 20-page writing submissions, which I’ll need to read and critique before we’re all workshopped at our next 10-day residency in Montpelier, Vermont over New Year’s. But I’ll keep up my creative writing during this time, even though I won’t have an advisor waiting to receive it. Now I need to go mark some self-imposed deadlines on my white board.
What steps do you take to set self-imposed deadlines and adhere to them?