Creative work is kind of like water.
It’s fluid, messy and unpredictable. Lots of artists revel in chaos and talk about how great all-nighters are.
They procrastinate and put things off. They tell themselves picking lint out of the carpet is more important than writing or composing. Then, hours before an important deadline, they fuel up on Red Bull, pull an all-nighter and stagger over the finish line.
Mozart often worked all-nighters, albeit without the Red Bull.
Sure you could pull an all-nighter to finish your book or album, but why risk missing your deadline, disappointing fans and turning into a bleary-eyed monster?
Other artists genuinely believe they can finish their work on time only to frustrate their fans with a missed deadline. (Winds of Winter, Game of Thrones fans?)
This way of working is unhelpful if you want to finish what you started creating without losing your mind.
Many successful and productive artists know how to make friends with deadlines, and you should too.
Why deadlines are your best friend
In 1955 economist Cyril Northcote Parkinson explained the problem with time management. He wrote in The Economist,
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Creative work like writing, painting or even blogging on Medium is no exception.
Give yourself five days to write an article, and you’ll spend a week on it. Take a month to record a song, and you might need two. Decide on five years to write a book, and it’ll be at least six before your book storms the charts on Amazon.
Now that’s fine if you know what you’re doing (more on this in Tip 5), but if your audience is expecting you to deliver, it’s a recipe for frustration. What’s more, many creative people beat themselves up over missed deadlines.
I get it.
Deadlines aren’t sexy, but these five practical tips can help you own your time instead of the other way round.
Tip 1: Set two deadlines
Elon Musk knows a little about deadlines, both realised and missed.
After founding SpaceX, Musk set a date to fly Falcon 1 in 2003. That didn’t happen until 2006. Space is hard like that.
In between going to Space and manufacturing electric cars, Elon Musk has figured out deadlines
More recently, Musk won a public bet that his teams at Tesla could build the world’s largest lithium battery in less than 100 days.
You see, Musk has learnt the value of setting public and private deadlines.
Musk told his biographer Ashlee Vance,
“You want to try to promise people something that includes schedule margin. But in order to achieve the external promised schedule, you’ve got to have an internal schedule that’s more aggressive than that. Sometimes you still miss the external schedule.”
So if your audience is expecting something from you, give them one date of completion and set yourself a more aggressive one.
Tip 2: Decide on your next action
David Allen can help you hit deadlines
In the business world, successful executives always take the next step or action when working on a difficult project.
Examples include getting a quote from a supplier, posting a job vacancy or phoning an interviewee to say they’re hired. Knowing your next action will also help you say no.
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, said,
“You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situations will have been created that match your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it ‘done.’ ”
For creative people, the next action could be:
- Writing five potential book titles
- Buying art supplies
- Performing keyword research for an article
- Booking a studio for practice
- Interviewing a reader
Tip 3: Goof off
What do you mean, There’s no script?”
Film executives behind the first Iron Man rushed. Their film went into production without a movie script in March 2007. According to star Jeff Bridges, Jon Favreau and team had only a vague idea of what their superhero film was about.
“They had no script, man. We would show up for big scenes every day, and we wouldn’t know what we were going to say. You would think with a $200 million movie, you’d have the shit together, but it was just the opposite.”
This $200 million film went on to become one of the most successful franchises of all time.
Their secret? They reframed their work as play. Bridges explained to iO9,
“Oh, what we’re doing here, we’re making a $200 million student film. ‘We’re all just fuckin’ around! We’re playin’. Oh, great!’ That took all the pressure off. ‘Oh, just jam, man, just play.’ And it turned out great!”
Tip 4: Do one small thing
Isaac Newton’s first law states, “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction… .”
Creative work is no exception.
Once you gain a little bit of momentum on a troublesome article, music track or painting, it’s easier to keep going.
The hard part is getting started. This is why productive writers use writing prompts and successful artists use free-form drawing exercises. Even musicians use pre-practice warm-ups like finger stretches.
Instead of trying to write a chapter in an hour, write one paragraph. Don’t worry about finishing your drawing today; just etch out a few lines and see where the canvas takes you. If you’re writing a song, skip the overcomplicated track. Just strum a few chords.
Tip 5: Allow for more time than you think
When I was self-publishing my most recent book I thought I could work with a designer and get an eye-catching cover within three to five working days.
I was such a fool.
In reality, my book cover designer needed two to three weeks, and that’s pretty fast. When she submitted her work, I briefed several rounds of edits and revisions, all of which cost more time…and money.
I should have known better. I should have remembered what researcher and professor Douglas Hofstadter said,
“It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”
So when you set your next deadline, allow for another hour, day or week depending on the size and ambitions of your project. Rather than beating yourself up when a project takes a little longer, say to yourself,
“It’s a good thing I knew this would happen.”
Ideally this is an internal deadline so you don’t risk disappointing your editor, readers or fans.
Take charge of your deadlines
As an artist or creative professional, time is your great asset — if you know how to use it.
Rather than living in fear of your calendar, an opening or a publication date, turn these challenges into constraints for your creative work.
The more you do this, the better you’ll become at immersing yourself in your projects and getting them over the finish line.
Got questions about deadlines? Ask me below.