Deadlines work — If you know how to use them

You might think a self-imposed deadline will motivate you to write that story, research that paper, or establish your vegetable garden.

It won’t.

At least, it won’t if you don’t have a plan to back it up. I have learned this from depressing, depressing experience.

Here’s an example from last fall. It’s about September, and I’m thinking about National Novel Writing Month and my Warren Zevon-inspired short story collection that’s almost finished. I decide to push myself. I’ll finish the short story collection by October 1, and then I’ll have time to plan for Nanowrimo.

But I don’t change my routine. I keep plugging away at the manuscript for my standard half hour every day before work, and I make steady progress. But October 1 comes and goes, and I’m still neck-deep in the story I was working on when I imposed the deadline.

It’s not that I was unmotivated, or didn’t have the time, or got distracted. I failed to meet that deadline for two simple reasons:

  1. It was not realistic.
  2. I did not plan for it.

This is only the millionth time I’ve done something like this, and it always makes me feel kind of bad about myself.

That’s why now, when I go to set a deadline for myself, I do the following things:

  1. Ask myself how much time I think I’ll need, and then give myself another week or month. Finishing early is great, finishing late makes you feel like a failure.
  2. Work backward from my chosen deadline and break the project/goal down into smaller steps. I then attach dates to each smaller goal.
  3. Plan when and where I will work on the project each day (or each week, or month, or whatever).
  4. Write the dates and scheduled work time in my planner (Google calendar also works quite well) so I can keep them in the forefront of my mind.
  5. Assess my progress regularly and honestly.

Whatever the goal and deadline, breaking it down into smaller steps is key. It’s easier to keep sight of a small goal than a large one, and you’ll get a confidence and motivational boost each time you complete one of your smaller goals.

This method works equally well for deadlines that are assigned. Like from an editor who wants those short story edits in a week. Or your boss who wants the annual report next month. Etc.

Do you use self-imposed deadlines? How do you plan for them?

What do you think?