Deadlines: Friend or Foe?

After three decades working in the public sector, I am no stranger to deadlines.

Frankly, I don’t have a problem with them. If a colleague, a client or an executive needs quick information to enable them to take action, I am more than happy to make that happen.

I don’t know who hit the fast forward button in late 2012, but it seems that around that time deliverables seemed to increase in quantity and deadlines seemed to get progressively shorter.

I tried to adapt as best as I could and along the way, I noticed a contrast in how I was able to take some deadlines in stride while others had hair-raising, stress-provoking, anxiety-inducing effects.

For example, preparing briefing notes and status updates didn’t scare me. If I was actively involved in a file, describing its background, evolution and next steps seemed to come pretty naturally. To me, those were low-stress, easy deadlines to meet.

For the most part, solving client problems was also a straightforward process for me, a lot like solving math problems in school. I was pretty comfortable with those deadlines as well.

But surprisingly, it was the written assignments that were more of a wild card.

If a request was for something short, concise and to the point, I could usually pull that together in good time, no problem there.

If a request was for something more strategic, more innovative or more impactful (or all of the above) then to me, a proportional amount of time should have been allocated, without a side order of interruptions to break my concentration. That wasn’t always the case.

I was more than happy to take on more challenging writing assignments, as I knew they kept my skills and writing reflexes sharp. But the reality is that I can’t complete a request of that magnitude in one rushed draft. I am humble enough to admit that I may be a good writer but I’m not that good!

I know myself well enough to know that my “eureka” moments will often hit me when I least expect them, and more often than not, when I am away from my desk and thinking about something else. For reasons that defy explanation, those moments sometimes happen as I am about to drift off to sleep or sometimes even in the shower.

I discovered that I am a disciplined writer, who needs to chip away at big requests a little each day, until the deadline. Through that process, it allows ideas to ferment over time like a fine wine, allowing time for “eureka” moments and multiple editing sessions to ensure a professional finish.

I was lucky that most managers trusted in my process and I was able to negotiate the time necessary to complete the requests to everyone’s satisfaction. There was a due date, but one that gave me enough time to produce what I considered to be my best work while still meeting corporate objectives.

But it was the executives that wanted instant, short-notice and last-minute brilliance that often had me perplexed. (Funny… I didn’t notice “Miracle worker” in my job description.)

I can laugh about it now, but when tall requests repeatedly began with the exasperating introduction, “Sorry for the last minute notice but…”, I often wondered if the originators of the requests were procrastinators who liked the pressure of deadlines and expected that we all work that way.

I understand that this is indeed a motivator for some, but under pressure-cooker conditions, it’s not my best work. To have an executive assistant at my cubicle, tapping their toe, asking if it’s ready yet, at 15 minute intervals, will not make the finished product come faster, nor will it guarantee quality… at least not for me.

As I embark upon my second career as a writer, I appreciate that big life lesson and the confidence that comes with understanding how my mind and my creative process work. As a result, I feel that I can articulate a realistic timeline to achieve a desired result, as well as to point out a deadline that might be a deal breaker for my creative process.

Either way, I start large scale projects as soon as they are assigned, not wait until the last moment. That’s just the way my mind works and the way I can keep my stress in check.

However, one situation in which I have made peace with tight deadlines is in the editing process. I enjoy the “time boxing” method.

I like taking a rough draft and setting my timer for 30 minutes. During that time, I do as much finessing as I can. When the alarm rings, it’s time to put it aside. Then, I might take a short break and then do the same with another draft document.

I find that 30 minute editing sessions are just right for staying fresh, to not allow myself to get hung up on a word or an expression, and to put the draft aside when the momentum is slowing down. That way, I am always working from first impressions of what sounds best, even in subsequent 30 minute sessions.

Whether I am working on a blog post, an essay or a scene from a script project, time boxing has found a permanent place within my bag of tricks to keep the thought process moving along.

That being the case, deadlines can indeed be my friend for the editing process. But when it comes to being asked to put my best foot forward on the blank page, unrealistic deadlines can be the villain within my writing process.

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Sincere thanks for reading!
Have a great day,

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