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Don't Let Your Deadline Kill You

Have you ever seen a movie where some guy hires a hit on his enemy then changes his mind only to learn that the hit man will not be called off? Usually, it’s either because the hit man is too “professional” to fail on the follow through. Either that, or he’s a sociopath who loves any excuse to kill.

Sometimes,when I set a deadline, I feel like I’ve hired that hit man. The twist in my plot? He’s a friend of mine.

I really like my deadline. He motivates me. He pushes me to be accountable, to produce timely results. Friends do that, right? But sometimes, that motivation takes a scary turn. My deadline starts to seem ill planned, so I pick up my burner phone and try to renegotiate. “I can’t be called off,” my deadline warns me. I start to think that I’ve somehow been drawn into my own hit. That when all is said and done, my deadline is going to be the death of ME.

Last year when I started writing my third novel, I planned carefully. I wrote character profiles and a plot outline. I took copious notes and amassed piles of research. I created a storyboard and a detailed timeline. Then I stood back and looked at it critically before asking myself this question: when can I reasonably be done with my first draft?

I set my deadline for December 31, 2014. Why then? It was a reasonable time frame in terms of months, but it was also a sentimental choice. We finished my first novel on New Year’s Eve many years ago, my deadline and I. It felt like a nice tradition to uphold. As the days, weeks and months of 2014 passed, my deadline continued to seem friendly, almost until the end.

Then life happened. Before I knew it, my deadline had passed and my draft was not done.
My first reaction was panic. I can’t miss a deadline! Missing a deadline is tantamount to listing writing as a hobby instead of a job description on LinkedIn. No, I’m a professional and this is a slippery slope. Next thing you know, I’ll be that person who says: “I started that third novel eight years ago. Haven’t written a single word since. Too busy browsing on Pinterest.”

It didn’t take long for my panic to turn menacing. I’m back in that movie and my friend, the deadline, feels betrayed. He calls me late at night, whispering into the phone. “You’re dead!”

I try to explain. I didn’t plan as well as I should! What was I thinking? Setting my deadline during the holiday season? Committing to not one but three volunteer projects at the same time.  “Take pity on me, Deadline!” But the line had gone dead. I may or may not have spent the rest of the night breathing into a paper bag.

When dawn arrived, my panic subsided. There was no gun smoke in the air, no trail of blood, no outline of my body on my floor. Missing my deadline didn’t kill me, but I still felt like I had committed a crime.

If I don’t keep my deadline, after all, what good is having one? And what should I do now? How do I keep this experience from killing not me, but my story?

  1. Stop panicking. It doesn’t help. My deadline had come and gone, but there was still work to do. Unless I planned to bite my own cyanide pill, I needed to make adjustments. I couldn’t do that while wasting my time on self-recriminations.
  2. Analyze what went wrong. Why did I miss my deadline? Because I left LIFE out of my plan. Sometimes when I am in Writer mode, I feel so dedicated, so zealous that I forget I have other priorities. I feel like the Story is first and everything else must fall in line. But that’s not really accurate. My family is more important than my story, for example, and I forgot to plan for holiday time with my husband and kids. My friends are important to me too and when one of my closest friends told me she couldn’t find the perfect bedding for her unexpected miracle of a baby, of COURSE I said I would sew it for her! I’m also involved in several volunteer communities and when they need help, I always want to set aside time to say YES. These are priorities to me too, but I hadn’t figured them into my plan.
  3. Double down. I gave up on writing to commit to other stuff, now it was time to give up on other stuff to commit to writing. I needed to up my daily word quota. I needed to turn down some other opportunities. I needed to make sacrifices to show that the Story was still a high priority in my life.
  4. Set a new deadline. This is scary. It’s like calling in another hit. Didn’t I learn my lesson the first time? Don’t I know that deadlines are dangerous? Yes, but at the end of the day, the deadline is still my friend. I need him. So now is the time to reassess my plan. How much work is left to do? Considering my new daily word quota and those other commitments that I just can’t ignore, what is a realistic date to finish my draft? This is the time for honesty.
  5. Keep my new deadline. Because this one could kill me. Seriously, missing a deadline shouldn’t put me in the grave, but if I miss two? Then I have stuck my own neck in the noose, my friends. It’s hard enough to write a novel. All the work is done up front, without pay, without praise. When I missed my first deadline, I granted myself mercy. In retrospect, I DID call off the hit. I outran my enemy, regrouped and created a new plan. I can almost hear my deadline telling me: “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, shame on you.”
If you are like me, you’ll miss a deadline now and then during your career. You’ll feel the noose tighten, you feel the click of a revolver against your head. Then you’ll sweet talk yourself out of it. But follow my advice: Don’t make a habit of it. Write yourself an exit story, make friends with your deadline and above all else: Don’t let your deadline kill you.

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