5 Steps to Meeting Self-Imposed Deadlines

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?

What incentive can I use to encourage me to meet a self-imposed creative writing deadline? A classic Ferrari like this one at the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA might do the trick.

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.

Then again, I'm not sure I can even afford the entry fee to Disneyland so I can ride in an Autopia car with Pluto.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

25 Responses to “5 Steps to Meeting Self-Imposed Deadlines”

  1. You have an amazing knack for writing posts about the exact issue I am facing that day! Just this morning I journaled about this problem in my morning pages.

    I recently read about a technique for getting daily to-do lists done which has worked well for me: put two Post-It notes on either side of the laptop – one with the current day’s list and one for the following day. It is very effective in keeping things moving each day, but what I realized was that I was losing sight of the longer-term goals. I’ve now decided I need to look ahead a few months and then move backwards by setting monthly, weekly and then daily goals.

    The key is keeping them realistic. As you said, I don’t want to set myself up for failure, so I plan on leaving room for life. Not every day will be productive. I am guilty of “over-goaling,” so this time I am going to work very hard in keeping it real.

    Whew! Long response. Good luck with setting your own internal deadlines/goals!

    • Hi Julie! Perhaps I write about issues you’re wrestling with because we’re both on the same creative path, eh? :)

      Working backwards from the final goal to build interim steps is a great strategy, that could be added to the list. I’d recommend you allow yourself some flexibility, however. As other life events tug at you, you may find yourself behind or you may speed ahead. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting a time table in either direction as things progress. At a creativity conference I attended recently, a speaker said any planning that extends beyond two months is 80% likely to need adjustment. We can only see so far ahead!

  2. Great list, Patrick. Sigh, yes, it’s so much easier to meet deadlines that are imposed on us from others (I’m very good at this) but less tenacious with meeting self-imposed goals in the time frame I’ve set. I keep a daily log of my progress in the form of a casual ‘credit report’ list, but I’m thinking I need to put up a visual, tangible chart I can tack right on the bulletin board that hangs on the wall just above my desk. It will literally be in (2 feet from) my face when I work :)

    I’m also going to work on allowing myself to celebrate my victories a little more (however small they are in comparison to my high expectations).

    • Yes, celebrate, Carole Jane!

      I like the idea of your daily log, and yes, a chart right above my desk sounds great. What I’ve learned with my white board, however, and others have told me this as well, is that if it stays there every day largely unchanged, you will start to not see it, even when it’s right in front of you. I sometimes change up my project tracking lines every few days so it simply looks different, even if the goals/deadlines haven’t changed.

  3. This has been my biggest issue for the past few years. Without an explicit, external deadline, I have been getting too little done. Contests used to serve as good motivation for me, but there is not only no negative consequence to not entering, but there is the positive lack of rejection.
    I need a new system.

    • Hmm. What if you put the entry fee for the contest into a jar ahead of time, and told yourself if you didn’t enter the contest, you couldn’t take that money back but instead had to give it to charity?

      As for the issue of rejection, that’s a whole ‘nother post! :)

      • I’ve been thinking about this. I know myself too well to think it would be easy. It couldn’t be a charity that I really wanted to support because then I would feel good about not making my deadline.
        I think what I really need is to commit to giving the entry fee to a political action committee that supports policies I shudder to think of, and to hire someone to make me pay up when I miss the first deadline. I probably wouldn’t miss a second after that.

  4. I keep it very simple, Patrick. I write for two or three hours every morning. If I write 500 words, that’s fine. If it’s 4000 that fine too. No judgement. But I keep that appointment with my desk.

    • Hi Cynthia. I think a lot of writers aim for exactly what you do, but are tempted by distraction or derailed by self-doubt. I suspect they’d wonder if you’ve always had such strict self-discipline, or if not, how you developed it.

      • As we grow older self doubt tends to become less of a thing. I still have it at times, though. But it passes. And the lessening distance between now and the inevitable end of my life is a great motivator. If the stories inside are going to get told, It’s now or never, as the saying goes.
        When one considers how long it takes to write a novel, and then counts all the novels to be written, there’s no time to waste on doubting and distraction.
        I try to ease into any good practice, until it becomes a simple habit. Strictness doesn’t work for me, cause I’m such a rebel. :-)

  5. Your list is excellent. Especially the part about being realistic. I’m working with someone right now who is using self-imposed deadlines as motivation. It works, but only when the goals are realistic. Otherwise, as you said, it sets them up for failure.

    I would add to the idea of setting realistic goals that it helps to accept that sometimes you will set overly ambitious goals and flop. At that point, just say “oops” and keep going! It’s tempting at that moment to think you can’t do this after all. You can…you just need a little more time than you’d hoped. As Cynthia said, showing up every day will absolutely for sure get you there eventually!

    I also like your point about having the long-term plan visible. It’s very motivating to see your own progress, often more motivating than a deadline. Any time I try to operate without a map, I get lost. :)

    • Hi Sue! I really like your point about not being afraid to walk away. I heard Michael Chabon say that the hardest part of writing for him is walking away from something that simply isn’t working. It’s like abandoning a child. But when I do that (and I’ve done it several times already this year alone) I tell myself I may return to it at some point, at which I’ll have a fresh perspective and the wisdom of more writing experience. in fact, I just submitted to a local workshop a piece I first worked on in June and then put aside.

      • Hmm…did I say something brilliant about not being afraid to walk away? I missed that! :)

        I just meant that we can’t let it derail us when we miss an interim or other deadline because it was unrealistic in the first place. We have to just get back to work and set a more realistic expectation.

        But I am definitely a fan of setting things aside if you just can’t get any momentum with it anymore. I do that a lot. I know those things are still there and have every intention of returning to them after my unconscious has worked on them in the background for a while.

  6. Love this post! I’ve been struggling with self-motivation myself. I do very well with deadlines set by others or circumstances – actually perform better then.

    But taking myself seriously is a challenge. I am going to use your suggestions!

    • Hi Kathy. Yup, as a journalist I became used to always meeting someone else’s deadline. I would bitch about it at the time, but now I see the value of it. Whatever you do, take yourself seriously! :)

  7. Dude … you didn’t let me down! Not only did you write a well-thought out blog entry with what are, from my personal experience, great tips … you got a bacon mention in there. I can die happy. :0)

  8. Great post! I actually set one of those big goals after my two-week social media/off-grid time … that, by the time I’m 40, I will have my WIP complete and polished, and an agent. Might it be overly ambitious? 40 is coming in May … Maybe or maybe NOT – especially if I remove those distractions that have prevented me from getting that WIP written in 2011. As Cynthia said, “It’s now or never.”

    • Melissa, welcome back to the ensnaring trap of reading others’ blogs! I hope your writing staycation was productive.

      Kudos for your goals of a complete WIP and an agent. I have imagined you for some reason as much younger, but I wish you a better 40th than I had. I took the family to a retreat on a Maryland lake, and it turned out one of my kids developed lice. I spent the evening of my 40th birthday literally nit-picking! Oh joy.

      • Thanks for thinking I was younger ;-). But alas, that milestone b-day is fast approaching. Oh my … I really hope my 40th IS better than yours. I’m all for nit-picking … but not like that!

        The time off was great, by the way – productive. And I am planning more of these absences, obviously, so I can meet that goal!

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