A Writer’s Guide to Managing Deadline Pressure

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Remember the movie The American President, starring Michael Douglas and Annette Benning (one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time)? At one point in the film, Douglas (as the U.S. President running for re-election) gives a riveting speech to reporters about character. Afterward, his press secretary (played by Michael J. Fox) rushes to rewrite the President’s State of the Union Address – with only 35 minutes before the scheduled speech. Talk about a pressure-packed deadline!

While those kind of tight deadlines don’t happen often in a writer’s life, deadlines in general are part of the process. Most of the time we can handle those deadlines without feeling stressed or anxious. But other times, the pressure to perform under strict deadlines can be a challenge.

How do we manage to stay calm and focused on the project at hand while the deadline hangs over our heads like a guillotine blade?

Examined closely, this question can be divided into two separate issues. How are we able to deal with  the deadline themselves? How are we able to deal with the stress and anxiety it produces (stress management)? Looked at another way, the anxiety we feel about deadlines may have more to do with feelings of insecurity about our ability to do the job than about the project itself.

One online dictionary defines deadline pressure as “the sense that there’s a shortage of time to complete a project, producing feelings of anxiety and stress.”

That begs the question: is deadline pressure a management issue, or a stress management issue?

If there’s a silver lining at all, it’s that deadline pressure is a universal experience that affects all industries, not just writers and creative professionals. Accountants and finance people have year-end reports to file, and tax attorneys must prepare tax returns by April 15. Manufacturers must produce large quantities of their product before clients run out of stock. Hospitals race against time to find the perfect match for a patient that needs a new heart or kidney.

Deadlines are not the enemy. It’s our attitude about them that slows us down. While too many deadlines at one time can make us feel overwhelmed, deadlines can be motivating tools too, writes  Psychologist Dr. Christian Jarrett. Without them, students may never finish their homework on time. Deadlines, he concludes, can help increase focus and boost perseverance.

If deadlines can help us meet goals and stay motivated, then why do most people struggle with the pressure? More important, how do we deal with that pressure so it doesn’t adversely affect our work?

Ironically, it may be our organizational skills that can keep the pressure to perform in check. Here are a few tips that have worked for me.

1. Set up a schedule for your project. Start with your deadline, and work backward toward the current date. In your schedule, allow for time for research, time for outlining, time to write the first draft and time to rewrite and proof before submitting it.

2. Start your project as early as possible. Granted, you may have other projects you’re working on. Try spending an hour doing the initial planning and research. Don’t wait until the last minute! Spending a brief time thinking about what you plan to write can give you a head start toward your deadline.

3. Divide your project into bite-sized chunks. This will allow you to work on your project a little bit at a time. You’ll make slow and steady progress. When you know you’re making progress and seeing the results of your efforts each day, you’ll feel less stressed.

4. Set short, intermediate deadlines. Allow an hour to perform certain tasks related to your project. Maybe it’s sending out a bunch of emails to set up interviews, conduct background research or draft an outline. When you know you have one hour to work, you’d be amazed at how much you can accomplish.

Most important, don’t wait for the last minute to begin your project! I know I said that once before, but I needed to say it again because it’s soooooo important.

As for the emotional aspect of deadline pressure, here are a few things you can do to keep yourself centered.

  • Breathe deeply. Take a few deep breaths before diving into your project. Following your breath will allow you to slow down your thought processes, and consequently, reduce your anxiety. Repeat this every time you feel stressed about the project.
  • Trust your instincts. When you’re racing toward a deadline, dealing with a difficult task or trying to solve a problem, sometimes the instincts kick in. Trust them. They’re usually spot on.
  • Trust your abilities. You know you have talent, you have experience and you’ve trained well in your chosen field. Once you’ve done your research and prepared your notes, trust your ability to get the project done on time. When you have confidence in your abilities, it takes a lot of the stress and panic out of the process.
  • Manage your time well. Doing small tasks each day will produce better results than a marathon at the finish line.
  • Give yourself a break. If you’re really feeling stuck, walk away from the project for an hour. Go for a walk or take a snack break or watch TV to get your mind off of the problem. When you come back an hour later, you may notice a solution that you didn’t see before.

There may be another aspect of deadline pressure to consider: performance anxiety. There’s a pressure to perform at your highest level, usually because something is at stake – a grade at the end of the semester, winning a new client or repeat business, or a coveted promotion. Meeting that deadline shows you are serious about your work.

For more great tips about writing under deadline, check out this article courtesy of the Public Relations Society of America.

Deadlines will never go away, and neither will the pressure. If you plan your time well, you’ll meet deadlines with greater confidence and less stress.

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