Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Under Pressure: Dealing With Deadlines

Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

My husband laughed when he found out I wrote a post about dealing with deadlines, because I have a hard time saying no to clients even when I'm on deadline. I've spent too many years in deadline-dominated fields (commercial design and now publishing), where you had to meet a deadline or else, and you did whatever it took to do that. I spent years working 14-hour days, six and sometimes seven days a week when I had a project on deadline. And with up to six quarterly magazines that were my responsibility, there was always one on deadline. If not two. And someone always had "one more little thing that would just take a second" to add to that.

I'll be honest and say because of this, I don't always handle my deadlines as well as I should (that "can't say no thing") and it's not uncommon for me to take on too much. I want to help, I want to get stuff back to people as quickly as I can. Most of the time I'm good about estimating how much time it will take me, but there are always those tasks that I'm way off on and they're the ones that get me into trouble.

Some things that have helped me are:

Realizing it's okay to say no
Just because you can technically squeeze in one more task or obligation doesn't mean you should. There will be times when you need to take on that task, but more often than not, you have some flexibility in when it gets done. Which ties in well with...

Realizing I can rework my schedule when I need to
A lot of times folks are fine with waiting a few days or rescheduling something if I can't get to it right away. When someone asks me for something and I want to do it, but know that it's going to put more pressure on me, I ask when they need it, and if I can do it X time. Sometimes they do need it right away, but often they can wait.

Maintaining a schedule
My to-do list is usually pretty long. I try to write down everything so I know what obligations I have on my plate that week. That way, I can shift things around to be more efficient. If I need to run errands, for example, I'll do them all on a day when I'm waiting to hear back from people about my other projects. I have to prioritize and put my energy where it's needed. Critical tasks get my focus, lesser tasks can be slipped in whenever I have time. What's critical changes depending on what's going on in my life. Sometimes the writing takes center stage, other times my day job, other times friends or family.

Understanding my limits
Okay, I'm still working on this one. As much as I want to, I can't do it all. I've been examining what has happened in the past to get a realistic idea of what I can and cannot do. I may like the idea of writing two books a year, and though my typical "three chapters a week" process technically means I can do two books in a year, but I've discovered that it's more like nine months for me to actually write a book. Things come up and it just takes longer to get a book the way I want it. And that's if things go smoothly. When they don't, it can take even longer. Feeling like a failure because I can't do what I know I can't do is silly, and not putting myself into that situation in the first place by taking on unrealistic goals makes more sense.

Taking time for myself
This one is probably the hardest to do. My needs go right out the window when I'm on deadline, but I need to set aside time for me as well, or I get burned out and I'm no fun to be around. Plus, my work suffers, so the extra time I put into it really wasn't worth it. I end up spending more time overall than if I'd taken that break when I needed it.

Taking time for others
Friends and family love and support us, so they're okay when we need to put them second or third in line. But because they're so understanding, it's easy to forget that they're important, too. Enjoying life with those you care about actually puts you in a much better head space so you can meet those deadlines. Worrying about the kids or the spouse or that sibling you've been meaning to call only adds to the stress and slows down your work. Working when you know there's nothing major hanging over your head takes the pressure off and lets you be better at whatever you're doing.

I try to balance, but I haven't gotten it right yet myself. I still work too hard, push myself too much, and stress myself out. That's just me and how I approach my responsibilities. I was like this before I sold my book, so I know it's not just the writing part. But because of that, I have learned a few things that do apply to the writing.

1. Writing should not take over your life.
If your goal is to be a published author one day, you're going to need to be able to work on a schedule and be able to get things back quickly, all while doing all the "author things" to promote your book. Waiting for inspiration to strike you isn't going to be something you can do all the time. Preparing for that now, before you sell that first book, will make your life easier later. It really is a marathon, not a sprint. Find a way now to make writing a part of your life, not all of it.

2. There will be days when writing is priority, but not every day
When I need to get something back to my agent or editor right away, I do it. But this isn't always the case, and some requests can be put off a bit when necessary. If I have another priority, it's okay to take care of that first, and the writing second.

3. Be realistic about your goals.
I have weekly goals because daily goals stress me out. If I miss the goal that day, I'm already "behind" on the second day and feel like a failure. If writing 500 words a day works for you, do that, but if you're more motivated by a chapter a week, or five chapters a month, or 10K words every two weeks, do that. The point it to get work done in a way that motivates you, gets the book written, and doesn't make you a crazy person doing it.

4. Remember it's a job.
I love writing, but once you start getting paid for it, it's a job. Just like you shouldn't spend all your time at the office, you don't want to spend all your time at the keyboard. Some of my best ideas have ht me when I was out and about having fun. Because that's where life happens and writers use life to craft better stories.

I'm hoping to get a better handle deadlines in 2011, and I feel really optimistic that I'll get the balance right. A lot of it is just going through the process a few times so you understand what's required, and then you just figure out how to fold it into your existing life. Now I know what I need to (and can) do, and it's time to adjust my routine so it all fits comfortably.

What are things you do to juggle tasks and deal with the pressure?


  1. This is all really well said. I'm one who can't work with word count/page goals. They totally defeat me. My process is much more organic. When I'm on deadline, though, I'm on fire.

    I write full-time, but that doesn't mean I don't have days that are devoted to taking the dog to the vet, field trips, and the like. And fortunately, I'm in a position to be able to live my life and write, too.

  2. Wife and I are working full-time for BigOil, both of us with deadlines and sometimes big budgets at stake. In my experience the deadline race can be divided into three stages:
    1. Before kids: No problem
    2. With small kids (less than 8 yo): It's a nightmare, deadlines combined with squeeze between kindergarden's opening and closing hours.
    3. With older kids (more than 8 yo): No problem. Kids walk to and from school by themselves, and and get themselves something to eat at home.

    Cold As Heaven

  3. I am completely unorganized and tend to either be all or nothing with writing. I need to heed some of this great advice!

    I've been looking for you blog tour wrap up. Did I miss it?

  4. It's important to not take on more than you can handle and to say 'no' sometimes. I'm still struggling with the 'no' sometimes yet myself.

  5. It's all about balance. Everything in your life needs balance. When things tilt too much to one side, everything else gets thrown off. It's a constant challenge to find that balance, but one worth striving for.

  6. Caroline: That's great. I wonder how many folks feel "writing full time" means writing *all* the time? Be interesting to take a poll or something on that.

    Cold As Heaven: I can only imagine the extra pressures kids must put on a writer. I have writer friends with kids, and they say it's a struggle to get things done sometimes.

    TerryLynn: It's hard finding that balance. No wrap up yet, I'm still putting data together, but I might have some info on Thursday.

    Nicole: Saying no the first few times made me feel really guilty, but the sense of relief at not having that extra task made up for it.

    Melanie: Absolutely. That's my goal now, and I hope I can meet it.

  7. Great post! I prioritize as best I can, and sweat it out when I've taken on too much. The saying "no" is hard, but sometimes necessary. I need to remind myself of that. :)

  8. Great post. I hope I prioritize more next year. I'm looking forward to retiring from some of my volunteer duties after this school year and saying "no" so I have more time to write. But you're right, writing is a job and for many like me, it's not a paying job. So I have to prioritize how much time to spend on it, my other job, my family and all my daughter's activities.

  9. I agree with everything you said! I have a hard time learning to say no too and definitely asking people when they want "X" done is important. You don't want to rush and do that thing if it can be done tomorrow or the next day.

    What I do to help juggle all of my writing jobs (which aren't paid...yet) and my day job is keep a to-do list and block off chunks of time to crank stuff out. Usually my Sundays are spent writing but it frees up my week where I work my 40 hour job and allow all the little things left to be done before or after work.

  10. Janet: Sweating it out is what I do more often than I'd like :)

    Natalie: I remember how making time to write was even harder before I got my agent, because it seemed like more of a "hobby," even though I wanted to do it professionally. It's hard to put time into something that's not a paying job or family responsibility. That was one relief at getting the agent -- it legitimized my writing time.

    M. McGriff: I like the chunks of time idea. I do that for my design work, too. I've found knowing you have a set time to write also makes it easier to focus during that time.