The Joy of Deadlines

Photo by LouAnn Clark on Pixabay

The summer is slipping away. In a mere few weeks, students will return to school for the fall semester. Here in the U.S., the arrival of Labor Day (first Monday in September) signals the unofficial end of summer and the official return to the usual hectic pace of the rest of the year.

For me, this summer has felt unusually long. Beginning as it did with my father’s death on the day after Memorial Day—coincidentally, the unofficial start to the summer—June was consumed mainly with the logistics of the memorial service, estate management, and working out a new Mom-care routine. As June slipped into July, my mind turned slowly to other matters, such as my novel-in-progress and my billable workload which, as in the past, lightened in the summer. I discovered the town pools and embarked on a semi-regular routine of swimming a few times a week. I signed up on several occasions to distribute vegetables after church, a simple task that requires nothing more rinsing off what has been harvested from the church garden and spreading the harvest on a table out by Farmington Avenue so anyone who wishes can enjoy garden-fresh produce.

As July melted into August, the pace picked up even as temperatures soared. More social events cropped up: movies with a friend, an unexpected concert with other friends, my annual date with Yo-Yo Ma at Tanglewood (granted, he doesn’t know we have a date). Clients began requesting in-person meetings. I joined the church’s summer choir. My lawn and yard desperately require attention. Appointments, deadlines, rehearsals, and social occasions are already appearing on September’s calendar, with other commitments spilling over into October and beyond.

Yet through all this, I’m proud to say that I have continued to make progress on my novel. I long ago reconciled myself to the fact that it will not be out in time for the holidays this year; in order for that to happen, it would have to be finished by now. Since this book, like its predecessor, is Santa-themed, I should plan for a release in or about late October, 2023.

I know that sounds absurdly far away. Still, it’s not really that long—fourteen months, give or take. The idea of having another year to work on it isn’t a reason to let the book languish now (as I, a notorious procrastinator, am prone to do). And so, because I am indisputably terrible at finishing things that do not have a fairly close deadline, for me there’s only one way to ensure progress: set a deadline for completion of the first draft.

Long ago, I read about a time management strategy that requires categorizing daily duties into four boxes: urgent and important; important, but not urgent; urgent, but not important; neither important nor urgent. The logic is obvious. That which is both urgent and important should be done first, while that which is neither important nor urgent should be kicked aside until everything else is done. The challenge for me comes with the remaining two categories. Should I do first what is important, but not urgent, or should I do what is urgent even though it’s not important? How can something be urgent but not important? Doesn’t the fact of the urgency mean that right now, it’s important? If I’m nearly out of eggs and I want to make quiche, does that mean that buying eggs is important or merely urgent? Or consider the dire state of my lawn: urgent or important? (It certainly wasn’t urgent enough for me to go out this week and do the work in 95F heat.)

Enter the joy of deadlines. Ordinarily, I will put off mowing the lawn until I feel like doing it, but miraculously, I’m much more likely to feel like it if guests are coming. Similarly, a stack of transcripts to be indexed has been sitting in my office all summer, important but not urgent—but once the other side files their brief, the indexing will become both important and urgent because I need to do it before preparing my responsive brief.

On the other hand, it comes to my non-billable writing, my time is entirely my own. The editors at Tuxedo Cat Press are not threatening to drop me or sue me if I fail to turn in my book by a particular date. I can write whenever I choose (subject to all the other commitments and deadlines), and I can finish at my leisure. Right?

Wrong. Very, very wrong. I’ve learned that the hard way.

When I was writing State v. Claus, I indulged in this type of thinking. After all, I had no agent or publisher to make demands. I wrote short stories and started longer works, assuring myself I’d get to the book eventually, when I felt inspired. Years passed, and I periodically dabbled with that manuscript, but I made very little progress—until I set a deadline. That was when I began work in earnest. I set deadlines for each draft. Once the book was written and edited, I set more deadlines for various aspects of production. Eventually, I held my first novel in my hand.

You see, I’d realized one indisputable fact: time was passing.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

We all know our time on this earth is limited, and our productive days are often even fewer. Yet I was behaving as if I had forever to write this book even though I knew that simply wasn’t true. One of these days, it really would be too late. If I wanted to write a book, I needed to get on with it.

I’m sure I’ve told you about my friend who said that, upon being diagnosed with breast cancer, her first thought was, “But I never wrote my book!” I’ve also repeated Anne Lamott’s quote about waking up one day at age seventy or eighty and realizing you never wrote your book–and how it’ll break your heart. I expect I’ve also shared this quote from Natalie Goldberg that has been on my refrigerator for years:

Photo by me

As living creatures, we all have deadlines. Dead lines. Dates when we will become dead. At the least, dates when we will no longer be able to do the things we dream of due to circumstances such as aging, declining health, or the like. Sell-by dates, if you will.

I don’t mean to be morbid, but I do mean to encourage you to get off your ass and do whatever it is you currently dream of doing “someday,” because Someday is coming faster than you think. Don’t wait for the kids to leave home or the spouse to retire or the dog to die. When Someday is in your rearview mirror and “I want to do X” becomes “I wish I’d done X,” it is indeed going to break your heart.

For me, the best and simplest motivator is a deadline: “I will complete the first draft of my book by October 16, 2022.” Or October 31, or whatever other date best combines pushing myself to work with not making myself crazy. Setting the deadline for the draft makes it real. Just like any other work-related deadline, it requires me to be conscientious about making time each day to work toward this goal. An hour every day, 1,000 words per day, whatever it takes. As long as I don’t succumb to the mindset that says I can do it whenever I want, because I have all the time in the world.

Because I don’t. Nobody does. One of these days, time will be up and the show will be over.

So if there’s something you’d like to accomplish in this life—such as writing a book—I urge you to consider assigning yourself a deadline, or even a series of deadlines. Maybe you decide that you’ll write the first page by Sunday night, or begin research within the next ten days, or finish an existing piece in two months. Or maybe you work better with a longer-term plan that might involve getting out a calendar—nothing fancy required—and filling in the blocks to reflect your goals, like completing one chapter each week. If you like to outline, set a deadline for completing your outline. Whatever gets you moving and turns your dream into an achievable goal—that’s what you need to do.

For some, accountability is key. If you’re one of those, tell people what your deadline is. Ask them to hold you to it, to follow up with you and say, “So, how’s your project going?”

So here’s my official announcement: Sunday, October 16, 2022, is the deadline for completing the first draft of my current novel. I have entered it on the calendar in the same way I would any other professional deadline. Feel free to ask how I’m doing with it.

Photo of my writing calendar by me

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