by Meg Dowell
I used to be terrible with deadlines. Depending on how much I have going on at one time, sometimes I still struggle. I’m a life-long procrastinator. Sometimes I submit things at 11:58 when they’re due at midnight. It’s easy to think working deadline-based jobs is enough to train you to meet deadlines with ease, but it has taken a lot of self-discipline to improve even a little on my own.
One of the best ways to learn how to stick to writing deadlines is to work with editors, publishers and supervisors who consistently expect you to meet weekly or even daily deadlines. However, if you’re just starting out, you’re having trouble finding that kind of consistent work or you just want to get more practice meeting deadlines, you can’t always rely on someone else to help train you to do so.
Here are a few helpful tips for training yourself, on your own time, to meet deadlines you set for yourself. It takes discipline. It takes consistency. It might take awhile to turn making deadlines into a habit. But it’s a skill all writers and creators can benefit from, whether you’re working for someone else or you’re all on your own.
Tell someone you’re terrified of disappointing
There’s this argument out there that you shouldn’t tell other people about your goals. In some cases, this rule fits nicely: you shouldn’t necessarily tell the whole world you’re working on a new project when you haven’t even started yet. However, sometimes intimidation is a pretty strong form of motivation. I care what people think of me. It’s who I am and in many areas of my life it’s not going to change.
At the beginning of this week I admitted a nearly impossible deadline to my Facebook friends, but said I was going to find a way to make it work. I’m going to report back at the end of the week, and I don’t want to have to admit I was unsuccessful. If you have a person in your life that you really don’t want to disappoint, tell them about your deadline (even if they don’t care). Then go back later with the news that you’ve actually done it (even if they still don’t care). It makes you feel good.
Write it down in multiple places
Normally I use my planner to keep track of everything I need to get done in a single day. Because of a few deadlines I need to meet by the end of the week (deadlines no one else is forcing me to meet – but I need a vacation, gosh darn it), I have three different lists going right now. They all have the same things on them, just structured differently. There’s just something about being able to cross things off in multiple places at once that makes it a thousand times more satisfying.
The more you keep track of your deadlines, the more likely you are to actually stick to them. It gets to the point where you start seeing that deadline everywhere you look – and you have two options: ignore it or finish it so it will leave you alone. You already know which of the two options is going to make you feel better about yourself.
Set up a definite reward – or consequence
That being said, if there’s no incentive for getting something done, it’s less likely to actually get done. I now that if I keep pushing myself as hard as I can, and finish all my work by Friday, I don’t have to do even a minute of work again until January. However, I also know that if I slack off at all, and don’t get everything done, I’m going to have fewer days of vacation time next week – or, if I just stop working now, none at all.
I’m terrified of not getting this time off. I want it. I need it. So I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure it happens, even if it’s a little miserable for a few more days. You need some kind of definite reward – something you KNOW is or is not going to happen depending on whether you meet your deadline or not. It’s best if you’re not in control of it. For example, you can tell your friend that the two of you can go out Friday night if you get all your work done. If not, she’ll still go without you, and you’ll miss out on all the fun. Incentives. Consequences. The more you train yourself not to give yourself what you want even if you haven’t earned it, the more effective they will become.
Test your limits
So far this week, I’ve done more work in two days than pretty much any day this year. Granted, we’re really not supposed to be working 13-hour days multiple days in a row, but I’ve now proven to myself that, if I ever need to, I can do it. I can put aside things that are less important and focus multiple hours on one project until it’s done. It’s not fun. I would much rather be doing something else. But I’m testing my limits, and I’m surprised at how much more productive I can be when I don’t let myself give up too soon.
Every once in awhile, you need to push yourself to see how far you really can go. Recommended only every once in awhile, but still. Use this as another incentive for seeing how well you can meet deadlines while maintaining quality of work. You’ll be surprised at what you can do when you force yourself to focus and block out the distractions circling around your head. I haven’t touched Netflix in three days. That’s an accomplishment, trust me.
Deadlines are an important part of any job, but careers like writing and editing are especially dependent on meeting deadlines, quick turnarounds and completing spontaneous projects. The more time you spend teaching yourself to make deadlines an absolute priority, the more marketable you become. Employers and clients notice when you’re always on time. They don’t just appreciate it: sometimes they’ll trust you with more responsibilities. YAAAAS.
Are you always going to be perfect? Of course not. Things happen. But it’s never too early nor too late to teach yourself how to rock any and all deadlines. The earlier you can get it done, the better. The more good work you can do in less time, the more productive you’re going to be overall.
Meg Dowell is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine, a guest contributor with Lifehack and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine. She is an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner and has also written for Teen Ink and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.