By Janice Hardy
A new year often starts by declaring your goals and dreams, but a frightful number of writers don’t achieve those goals—or those dreams.
And I was one of them for a very long time.
I’d start every January with high hopes and ambitious plans about what I was going to accomplish that year. Sure, I didn’t get everything done the previous year, but I’d learned from those mistakes, and this year would be different.
When 2020 started, I was struggling to fit everything I wanted to do into my already-busy schedule. And then the pandemic hit. Like everyone else, my plans—and those goals and dreams—flew right out the window. The world came to a stop and so did I. Which gave me the opportunity to catch my breath, look around, and realize what had been holding me back.
I know, that sounds crazy. Deadlines help us, right? They give us a target to shoot for. They let us figure out what we have to do in order to complete our novels before that date.
And that’s the problem.
When you write to a deadline, the only thing that matters is meeting that deadline.
Not the quality of the writing, not the strength of the novel, not your satisfaction with what you’ve produced—just the deadline.
To be specific, stop writing to self-imposed deadlines. Some deadlines we have to meet (publishers are picky that way), but I’m not talking about those. I’m referring to the ones we make where we promise:
Some writers can and do meet those self-imposed deadlines. If you’re one of them, let me ask you—is it everything you knew it could be, or did you rush a few things because you were running out of time? Did you not do something to make the manuscript better that you would have done if you had two more weeks to work on it? Is it “done” only because you had to meet your deadline?
And the real question—were you happy with the finished manuscript?
If the answer is “yes,” then keep doing what you’re doing. This article isn’t for you (grin).
If you answered “no” or you don’t meet your deadlines and feel awful about it, then stay with me.
I’ve imposed deadlines on myself for decades. I’ve arbitrarily decided when a manuscript needed to be done, then worked backward from that date and set my weekly and daily word counts. This seemed like such a logical thing to do.
It didn’t matter if I was capable of consistently hitting those word counts, because that’s what had to happen if I was going to finish the book by that date. If I had to push myself, or write on the weekends, or not spend time with my friends and family so I could finish the book, so be it. I had a deadline to keep. But when pushing yourself becomes the norm, you’re setting yourself up to fail.
The problem with self-imposed deadlines is that they rarely allow for the time needed to do the task well.
It’s the date we want the draft done by, but it’s not reflective of how much time it will actually take us to write that draft. We set our schedules on when we want a book completed, or how many books we want to write this year, or any number of goals, but we don’t consider what we actually need to compete the tasks we set for ourselves.
And most of us stink at estimating how much time a task takes us to complete. That’s not a slight, there have been studies. It’s called planning fallacy, and something like 83% of people don’t estimate how long a task takes correctly.
For example, no matter what past experience has shown you, you let what you hope will happen override what you know to be true. Even if your last three books took ten months each to write, you think “I streamlined my process, so it’ll only take me six months from now on,” because you really want to write two books a year.
And it still takes ten months.
Or worse—you hit that six-month deadline, but the manuscript was rushed, so now it needs six more months just to get it into the shape it would have been in had you worked on it for ten months instead of six.
Don’t decide when you want the project finished. Determine how long it will take to complete to your satisfaction.
“Satisfaction” is key here. What’s the point of meeting a deadline with a draft so rough you have to redo the whole thing? (Unless your goal was to write a rough draft, then that’s fine. You are satisfied.)
I know it’s hard. You want to get those ideas out of your head, onto the page, and into the hands of readers. You want your career to start now and not next year. You want to get those next three books out as soon as you can and start building your readership, because everyone says three to five books is where things take off.
I’m right there with you. But this false sense of running out of time to be successful can keep you from that success.
When I stopped writing to deadline, my productivity went up.
I gave myself the time I needed to write the book I wanted to write. And without that pressure hanging over me, I was able to focus and enjoy the process more, which led to better drafts.
Here’s a process that works:
1. List all the tasks needed to complete your novel (or whatever your writing project is).
Whether it’s writing a first draft, revising the tenth draft, getting a manuscript ready for publication, or maybe re-vamping your website, the project will have tasks. Some of them will be easy, some of them will be complicated.
No matter how small, write them down. Ten “little things” that each “only take five minutes” is an hour. And odds are they take longer than you think. Which brings me to…
2. Estimate how much time each task will take.
Not the time you think it will take, or hope it will take, or will probably take if you push yourself because you want to get it done by the date I told you to ignore. How much time will it really take?
For example, if you know you’ve never written X amount of words in a writing session, don’t choose X words per session to write because that lets you get it done by that self-imposed deadline. Look at how much writing you get done on average. Track it for a week or two. Estimate based on your worst days, not your best days. That way, you’ll give yourself wiggle room and buffers when unexpected things pop up and you miss a writing session or two.
3. Determine how much time you’ll realistically need to finished your project.
Add it up and compare it to how much time you have each week to write. If you have ten hours a week to write, and your estimates say it’ll take you ninety-seven hours to complete that project, plan for ten to twelve weeks.
Yes, give yourself a week or two extra. 83% underestimate, remember?
4. Prioritize your tasks.
Figure out what needs to happen first and what comes later. For books, this isn’t as critical since you have your process and you know how you like to work. But you might need to research before you can write, or interview people, or outline or world build.
For other writing projects, the most efficient order to work in might not be what you think. For example, I’m launching my JT Hardy website this year, and I thought creating the website would come first. But when I listed out the tasks, I realized it came last. There’s a lot that needs to be done before I build it.
5. Work through your list (write the book, do the project).
This helps you focus, and gives you a sense of accomplishment that will keep you motivated. You’ll see progress without the impending doom of a looming deadline.
6. Stop at regular intervals and evaluate your progress.
Not every book or project goes the same way, and you have no idea what unknown issues might pop up. Check in from time to time and see how the book or project is going.
Do you need to add some time to the schedule? Adjust your schedule as needed, and don’t feel guilty about it. This is why you’re not writing to deadline. You’re giving yourself the time you need.
If you’re ahead of schedule, great! Don’t change it, just keep working. That extra time now might be needed later if something goes off the rails. I did a revision this past fall that was two weeks ahead of schedule until I hit act three—then I used up those extra two weeks.
A shift in perspective can make a huge difference in your productivity. You’ll focus on the time you need to be successful, not an arbitrary deadline only you know (and care) about.
Once I stopped using deadlines and shifted to understanding what I needed to do to complete a project, I started finishing more projects. And I was a lot happier with my results.
Now it's your turn. Do you write to deadline? Do you find it helpful or stressful? We'd love to hear about it down in the comments.
* * * * * *
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author and founder of the popular writing site Fiction University, where she helps writers improve their craft and navigate the crazy world of publishing. Not only does she write about writing, she teaches workshops across the country, and her blog has been recognized as a Top Writing Blog by Writer’s Digest. She also spins tales of adventure for both teens and adults, and firmly believes that doing terrible things to her characters makes them more interesting (in a good way). She loves talking with writers and readers, and encourages questions of all types—even the weird ones.
Find out more about writing at www.Fiction-University.com, or visit her author’s site at www.JaniceHardy.com. Subscribe to her newsletter to stay updated on future books, workshops, and events, and receive her book, 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now, free.
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I usually only have one goal. That's to write 100 words. I'm on a loop that is called 100x100. It's 100 words in 100 days. Once we reach 100 we keep on going into a year, two years, and on we go. Two or three times, I've reached year 5 and something happened and I had to start over. I don't remember now what happened the first time. The second one was when I had knee surgery. I had a fit because my computer wouldn't work. I had written on my phone all week. Then instead of going home, I was sent to rehab at an ancient nursing home. Then this past October, I went into the hospital on the 30th. I was there until 8 November due to a serious kidney infection and pneumonia. I had planned NaNo, I had a rough story layout, and I was going to hide my phone and turn it off so I'd avoid being sucked into the games I enjoy playing. I was working Sunday through Thursday and I missed a week and a day of work. Anyway I just wasn't able to find my focus in the hospital until around November 4. I just did the minimum and decided okay next year on the NaNo win. I'm still working away on the book. After I was "terminated" at work due to the ramp down, I set a goal of 500 words a day. I have to admit some days it's been tough to make it but most days I charge along adding words. I wanted to win NaNo this year because it's been about 3 years since I won it.
Sorry to hear about your health issues. That takes precedence over writing any day. But what a great system for taking small steps to a larger goal. That's a novel in two years, or a novel a year if you write for kids.
And now that you know what you can do, it makes sense to raise the goal. Sending good writing vibes to hit that every day, or get close.
Janice, this post was super interesting to me. I feel like getting better at making big tasks into little tasks would serve me well. I get bogged down when there is a big task in front of me because of the enormity and the focus required.
Breaking things down into small tasks works great. I've been looking at my entire process that way now, and it's made a huge difference in my productivity, and my stress level. I worry about the to-do list, and the rest will get done when it's its turn on the list.
Brilliant. I have found time tracking to be one of my most useful tools. Also, I tend to plan for crunch mode. I plan based on my best past productivity. That's fine for maybe one or two projects a year, but I can't run at max capacity all year every year. So for example, I might do NaNo or ChaBooCha or NaPiBoWriWee to push myself, but the next project has to be at a more reasonable pace. Thanks for the great tips!
Thanks! That sounds smart, and I love NaNo for that reason. I don't do it every year, so it's a fun way to try to sneak in a little extra work.
I've noticed a positive difference in my frame of mind since I've begun breaking down what I need to do in chunks after surveying the entirety of a project. There is more than enough stress to go around. Why add to the party?
Soft deadlines work for me.
Exactly! It's such a small thing, but it has a big effect. And I love crossing things off my to-do list.
Ellen--I like that phrase - "soft deadlines." I've never responded well to a self-imposed "hard deadline." And, Janice - I had read recently about planning fallacy, which I experienced every day, and I've been trying to be more gentle with myself about my expectations. Thanks for the validation!
Most welcome 🙂 It's the pressure that often gets us. The more stressed we get, the less we get done. Goals, not deadlines! So much better.
Nice post, Janice. I, too, tend to kick myself around when I don't meet my outrageous expectations. You've written a good alternative approach. Look forward to the JT Hardy website
Thanks! It's so easy to do. And when we compare ourselves to other writers, it's even worse. It doesn't matter if the "other writer" writes full time and has two assistants to help. We still feel pressured to meet the same standards.
I really like this kind and left-brained approach to setting goals, Janice. I have to admit I thrive on deadlines and find them motivating, but I know that they can as often serve as a whip to flagellate ourselves with, and that's no good for creativity. Thanks for a good post!
The odd thing is, I always did, too until the last several years. I was a creative director for 20 years, and had deadlines every month. But with writing, I realized the deadlines were hurting, not helping. The little tasks worked so much better.
If deadlines works for you, totally use them. Everyone is different. This is just an approach for those who find deadlines less motivating 🙂
Wow, Janice, thank you! Uh, but how did you get into my head? Self-imposed deadlines could be my middle name. Anyway, thanks for an essay that is making me think. You're out of my head now, right? Hello? Hello?
I have writing gremlins who keep me updated on what folks need (grin). They're very respectful of your brain.
Love this, Janice! I feel bad at times not setting more deadlines and hitting them, but I also know that making an overall plan and then just focusing on weekly or daily goals (without self-punishment, even if I don't meet those) is what results in my highest productivity. I needed this reminder and your tips! Thank you.
Most welcome! I've really enjoyed this new shift n my process. There's so much pressure on us all the time now, and this just makes writing more manageble.
Thank you Janice, in my not so humble opinion you have one of the very best sites for writers. Would love to feature an article about you on my webpage! For now, I will just share what you write.?
Thank you for this! It encourages me about my own process. I give myself deadlines all the time but rarely make them. Then I feel like a slug. I have to keep reminding myself that even if (when) I don't meet those deadlines, I would make no progress without them. So they at least give me a destination that I will eventually reach.