There was a time when deadlines, to me, were a constant source of doom and dread—a Sword of Damocles whose weight hung heavier over my head with each passing day.
This time was College.
Each year, I would look at my schedule and note when my term papers were due. A month ahead of time, I would camp out in the library, a stack of relevant history books before me, my laptop primed and ready to receive the inspiration which must surely flow as reward for such studious intentions.
Instead, I idled away hours at a time reading listicles on BuzzFeed, chasing rabbits down Wikipeida link holes, and accumulating hundreds of open browser tabs of interesting news articles that I would promise myself as a reward for achieving some study goal that I never met. The day would end, and I would walk home frustrated with myself, glutted on superfluous information like a toddler on candy.
Somehow, the closer my deadline approached, the worse this behavior became, until I passed an invisible tipping point, after which my focus would click into place and I could suddenly produce hundreds of words an hour where before I could only write two or three.
Over time, I began to rely on this phenomenon like a crutch. Procrastination ceased to be a behavior I could change, but it was one I could control. I began to procrastinate more productively, allowing myself to spend my time on things that interested me more, until the pressure to get my work done built up enough for me to knuckle down and get to business.
The more I did this, the better I was able to gauge how late I could push my work before beginning. The bigger the project, the more risky this behavior was. At the same time, the greater the consequences for failure became, the more precautions I took to ensure the worst didn’t happen. Writing papers began to feel like a game of chicken, where my risk tolerance was proportional to the size of the oncoming vehicle.
This wasn’t the greatest, but I figured I only had to make it through college. I felt certain that once I graduated, deadlines would become a thing of the past, an arbitrary imposition of the education system that I would leave behind me for good.
Little did I realize, when I started down the path of becoming a professional copywriter, that deadlines would become the bread and butter of my existence. Instead of two or three deadlines a semester, I had half a dozen a week—if not more. The intense pace meant I had to work hard to keep up. The amount of time I could afford to spend shrank. My capacity to produce words grew. It whipped me into shape. And I learned to think about deadlines differently.
First of all, there are two kinds of deadlines: due dates and time constraints. A time constraint is the total amount of time you can spend on a project. If I have approval to put three hours into writing a blog article one week, then I might put those three hours in at any point in the week. The time limitation keeps me to task.
On their own, time constraints are incredibly helpful for dealing with large-scale, ongoing projects. I also find them essential for making progress on personal writing goals for which the deadline is self-imposed. Writing for a set amount of time every day can help me gain traction on a project that would otherwise seem too unmanageable even to start.
Due dates are more concrete. They say nothing about the amount of time I am allowed to put into a project, and everything about when that project will be over. To me, the feeling that comes when a due date passes and my work is done feels like being born anew. Purgatory is over. I can live again.
But the best, most manageable workloads are ones that combine the two, that give both a time constraint and a deadline, and where both are controlled enough to keep me on task but not so tight as to be stifling.
Used this way, deadlines become a liberation. They are the expiration date for stress. They are a sacred compact allowing me the creative freedom to produce my best work—to a point. They are a pass/fail test. Even if what I submit isn’t my best work, submission is victory.
In this context, turning work in early is no longer a virtue. If I have the freedom to spend a certain number of hours on a project, and when my project isn’t due until a certain day, using less than the time I have been given to produce my work is a sign that I have not worked hard enough. It’s an indication that I’m not comfortable enough with my deadline, that I’m giving in to anxiety and letting fear of failure prevent me from pushing my boundaries.
John Cleese once gave a talk on creativity in management that I watch whenever I feel the need for some inspiration. It’s fantastic and funny and insightful, as one might expect. One of my favorite moments comes when he describes work he used to do with a colleague—one who Cleese felt was funnier than himself—whose work was often not as good as his own, because this colleague often went with his first idea and didn’t allow himself the time to stretch himself beyond the most obvious one.
Cleese then encourages anyone who wants to be creative to take time. To allow themself the space they need to let creative ideas breathe. And once they’ve take the full measure of that time, to then set down to the business of producing their work.
To me, that is what a deadline is. Rather than suffocating me, it gives me the breathing room to stretch my creative muscles. And learning about myself, my limits, and the time it takes me to produce work is what has allowed me the freedom to view my deadline as my helper rather than my antagonist.
Give yourself permission to trust your deadline.