My husband will laugh when he finds out I wrote a post about dealing with deadlines, because I have a hard time saying no to them. 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.
I've tried to be better about this the last few years, and I am improving. 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 guys do to juggle tasks and deal with the pressure?