I used to struggle with deadlines.
I thought writers and anyone engaged in creative work had no business using a calendar or managing their time. I wrote articles when I felt like it, at a schedule that suited me. That was fine until I started getting paid to write.
I quickly found out editors don’t like (and won’t rehire) writers who ship their stories or work late.
On editor pulled me aside and said,
“A writer who doesn’t turn in their stories on time isn’t a professional. I can only work with professionals.”
I learn the hard way that creative work is kind of like water.
It’s fluid, messy and unpredictable. Lots of creative people procrastinate, put tasks off and offer excuses. Or before a due date, they fuel up on Red Bull, pull an all-nighter and stagger over the finish line.
Sure you could work on a creative project until dawn, but why risk missing your deadline, disappointing clients and turning into a bleary-eyed monster?
Other artists genuinely believe they can finish their work on time only to frustrate their fans with a missed deadline, as any George RR Martin fans knows.
If you want to become a well-paid professional creative, a deadline is your friend.
Reframe What Deadlines Mean
A few years ago, I set out to write a series of short stories. I spent my free nights reworking the stories until they were just right. I wrote and rewrote every sentence.
A few months went by, but I didn’t finish a single story. Sick of lack of progress, I picked a submission date for a short-story competition and used it as a deadline. It forced me ship a story even if it wasn’t perfect.
Although I didn’t win the competition, I got feedback from a judge about what to improve. I learnt it’s easier to get help with an imperfect, yet shipped creative project than one you toil over for months without showing to another person.
Use Small Blocks of Time
Lots of creatives like to put off the work until the last minute. They only get motivated to finish a project because a client expects it.
This approach may be effective for some people, but why take that risk? Instead, set aside thirty to sixty minutes each day when you will work on a book, album, painting or creative project.
By the end of the week you’ll have spent up to 10 hours on your creative project. That’s the same amount of time as somebody who pulls an all-nighter, without the anxiety or stress. It’s far easier to chip away at a big project bit by bit.
Sure, this is a small personal deadline no one but you will care about, but it cultivates a habit of accomplishing more creative work in less time.
Remember Parkinson’s Law
Parkinson’s Law states “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion”. In other words, if you give yourself six months to write a book, it will take six months if not longer.
Creative work is no exception. The problem is more time doesn’t necessarily result in a better product.
The 1996 PC video game Duke Nukem 3d was a massive hit. Like many gamers, I couldn’t wait for the sequel. Unfortunately Duke Nukem Forever spent fourteen years in development and, like many, I’d moved on by the time it was released. Critics panned it for feeling clunky, out-of-date and ugly.
Other examples of long-delayed but criticised creative projects include Guns N’ Roses album Chinese Democracy and The Dark Tower movie.
A lack of time can serve as a constraint that forces you to decide what to include or cut from a creative project. If you’re writing a book, for example, you might have to cut a long, meandering chapter rather than rework it for the next draft.
Set Two Deadlines
I learnt this one from Elon Musk. He reportedly sets an internal deadline for his teams and an external one for customers, shareholders and the market. That way, missing an internal deadline still offers a margin of error. He said,
“You want to try to promise people something that includes schedule margin. But in order to achieve the external promised schedule, you’ve got to have an internal schedule that’s more aggressive than that. Sometimes you still miss the external schedule.”
You might not be designing electric cars or building a rocket-ship for Mars, but Musk’s approach still applies. If you’re a professional creative, you already have external deadlines. An editor, for example, gives a professional writer a deadline to work towards. He or she says, “I need this article or a first draft by such and such a date”.
Set an internal deadline a few days before the external one so you have a margin of error in case you get sick, another project arises or life intervenes.
Professionals ship their work on time and they get paid well for doing it.
When I started shipping my work before a deadline I found that editors were more willing to rehire me and offer new, more rewarding commissions. My income went up as a result.
Creative work might be unpredictable but applying constraints like a deadline will help you ship projects for readers or clients and get paid what you’re worth.
The same applies for any work you are commissioned to complete. Decide you are always going to be a professional.