How to Make Deadlines

Most of the time, I don't make deadlines for myself. I'm lazy. Instead I just keep plugging along, figuring 50 words is better than zero. While that's true, it's stupid of me not to set goals. I work BETTER with them, even if it's just to squeeze out another couple sentences because I'm almost there.

Until recently, one of my rationalizations was that writing is subjective. How could I set a deadline for something creative and unpredictable? Turns out that's crap. Two of my previous jobs were both creative (game design) and unpredictable (computer programming), but if I didn't tell my bosses when I thought a task would be done, they'd be pissed.

And you know what? I did do it. I set deadlines for tasks that were impossible to measure, and most of the time I met them. Here are three tips that (hopefully) will help me do it again, without the bosses who taught me these things.

1) Take your initial estimate and double it. It's human nature to underestimate how long a task will take. Unless you have strong data backing you up (e.g. you have written your last three novels in under two months), doubling your estimate will take care of this bias and give you flexibility when the unexpected happens.

2) If a task will take longer than two weeks, break it up into smaller tasks. Two weeks is about as long as most people can accurately plan. When a deadline is farther away, the tendency to procrastinate increases. Breaking a huge task up into smaller ones will keep the necessary pressure on and make your estimates more accurate.

3) Pay attention to how often you beat (or miss) your deadlines. This is how you improve over time. If you usually miss your deadlines, loosen them up a bit. If you usually beat your deadlines by a lot, maybe you don't have to double your estimates anymore. The longer you practice this, the better your estimation skills will be.

Remember, the goal of deadlines is not to make you work faster. The goal is to accurately estimate how long a task will take and to help you work at a consistent pace.

Granted, for most of us (myself included), "a consistent pace" and "faster" are the same thing. When I don't make deadlines, I tend to go on a writing binge followed by weeks of self-justified laziness. There's nothing wrong with taking breaks, but they should be intentional, which mine weren't.

Do you keep deadlines? Got any tips to share for those of us who can't even make them, let alone keep them?

7 comments:

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Remember, the goal of deadlines is not to make you work faster.

Oh, this is so hard.

Learning to trust my process and relax the deadlines (I'm a relentless hyperplanner) was tough for me. My current ROW80 deadline (a rough draft in about 7 weeks) is based on a realistic (for me) sense of what I've accomplished in the past, which seems like the right balance (again for me YMMV).

I always have too much on my plate. Having a deadline helps me prioritize which ones need to get done today. Accountability is helpful - I have ROW80 partners and while we're on completely different tasks, we're cheering each other on and "checking in" each Tuesday. It helps.

Good luck with your goal-setting!

Ted Cross said...

I have trouble with setting deadlines, too. I find that when I'm getting too lax in my writing, I need to sit down with a blank piece of paper and actually write down the next few chapters by POV character name, and then below the name write out what plot points and other important issues need to be covered in the chapters. Once I can do that, the chapters come easily. I can't do full outlines, but this smaller approach keeps me going.

Myrna Foster said...

I'm glad it's human nature to underestimate how long something will take because I do it everyday. My husband teases me more about this than anything. I am getting better though. I met my second goal for the first draft I just finished. I have to set deadlines though.

Anonymous said...

Yeah I have problems with setting deadlines too. For me I need to be working on an already existing job that someone else has set a deadline over me. Otherwise if I set it myself even if I over estimate I am usually way off. Or if I write a T0-Do list I will usually loose it anyways. The thing on my To-Do list needs not to be NOTHING. But it needs to be DON'T LOOSE THIS LIST. Then I'm set.

Matt Heppe said...

While writing Eternal Knight I set specific, daily word count goals that I HAD to reach. Sometimes I made it in four hours, sometimes in eight.

That was pre-child. I'm wondering how it is going to work now that I have a little one. Setting aside the time to write is going to be a much greater challenge.

I think I will still set goals, they will just be for lower word counts. The days of 5,000 word days are over. 1000-1,500 will be more like it.

Adam Heine said...

Yeah, Matt, I definitely can't spend 8 hours reaching a goal. If I miss it, I miss it (and usually with good reason). That's why, for me, deadline-making is more about measuring what I CAN do rather than pushing me to do more.

K. Marie Criddle said...

I set ridiculous deadlines and I do everything I can to hit them, but I usually turn into a raging mess the few days before the deadline hits. I've gotten a lot better about the ridiculousness of the deadline (revise a book in one week turned into one month instead) but I still have a long ways to go.
All good reminders, Adam...thanks!