Episode #66 – How to Use Deadlines Effectively to Get Your Book Written

Deadlines work. Whether they’re self-imposed or external, they push us to get things done. We can use the power of deadlines to make sure we hit the finish line of the BIG project. setting deadlines, or specific goals or dates by which we want to finish a project can actually be quite helpful, as long as we’re setting them in a way that’s supporting our creative process.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this solo episode:

  • the benefits of setting deadlines for your writing projects and sessions
  • the types of deadlines you can set
  • how to make them realistic and achievable
  • a series of questions to ask yourself to help you set realistic writing goals
  • some ideas on actually meeting your writing deadlines, so you can get  your books finished and meet your deadlines to share your books with the world, rather than feel overwhelmed and frustrated because you missed your deadline

Books Mentioned in this Episode

Links I shared:

Pomodoro Timer

Facebook Group – to access the monthly links for the Write-Together Sessions

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Question for you...Have you ever had or set a deadline for yourself that made you panic every time you thought about it? Made you feel overwhelmed and anxious and like a failure before you even reached the deadline? Or did that deadline motivate you to put your butt in the chair and write? Inspire you to block out the time you needed to get your words written and your book done?

Whether your deadline had to do with writing a book or getting everything ready for your six-year olds birthday party and the arrival of a horde of amped up kiddos, they can either overwhelm or inspire, create panic and anxiety OR they can motivate us to do the work we know we need to do.

The trick with deadlines, which is really just a goal we want to achieve with a date attached, is to use them wisely, so they do motivate us. How do you do that?

In this episode, we’re going to talk about the benefits of setting deadlines for your writing, the types of deadlines you can set, how to make them realistic and achievable, and some ideas on actually meet your writing deadlines, so you can actually get your books finished and meet your deadlines to share your books with the world, rather than feel overwhelmed and frustrated because you missed your deadline

I’m Amy Isaman, host of the Dear Creativity, Let’s Write Podcast. I’m an author and a book & writing coach, and I’ll help you get your books written, whether that’s through helping you with story structure and writing craft, consistently getting your butt in the chair to write, or getting you past the perfectionism or procrastination or whatever creative goblins might be regularly haunting you and stopping you from writing the book your called to write.

As I said, all a deadline is is a goal with a date attached. That’s it. But we give it this really scary name of DEAD LINE, like death will happen if you don’t achieve the goal that you’ve set out for yourself.

Yikes. But setting deadlines, or specific goals or dates by which we want to finish a project can actually be quite helpful, as long as we’re setting them in a way that’s supporting our creative process.

Benefits of setting Deadlines
Before we dive into “the how” of working on a deadline, let’s chat about WHY. Why set a deadline? Why put yourself through the potential anxiety of having a looming deadline?

Because when it comes to writing, deadlines can ABSOLUTELY help us to get our work done. They force our butts into the chair, so we actually crank out words.

They can motivate and push us. They help us hold ourselves accountable and keep us focused on the task at hand.

Ann Hadley, in her book Everybody Writes calls deadlines the WD-40 of writing which cracks me up, but it’s true. They help grease the writing wheels!

They can also, surprisingly, help us to get into a flow state. Researcher Mihaley Cheek-sent-me-hi addresses this in his book Flow which is all about getting into a state of flow This is exactly where we watn to be when we’re writing. As a little side note, the book Flow is dense, like don’t read it when you’re feeling sleepy. I’ll put the pages I’m referencing in the show notes, but Shelly Carson in her book Your Creative Brain actually breaks this down in more bite-sized chunks if you’d like to dive into this a bit deeper on your own. Again, you can find links and details in the show notes.

Okay, back to achieving the flow state and why setting goals with deadlines works.

There are several criteria for achieving a flow state. First, we need to be participating in a challenging task that demands full concentration and commitment. Next you need clear goals and immediate feedback on your actions. So...writing a book qualifies. It’s a challenging task that demands our concentration, we can break it down into achievable goals, and we get immediate feedback on our progress when we look at our word count or read our words - they’re great or crap or somewhere in between.

So, writing is definitely an area where we can get into and achieve a creative flow state. And we can use our deadlines to help us! Win!

So how does this work? Well, if we have a clear goal, get 1000 words written in the next hour, we can get immediate feedback on how well we’re achieivng that goal. We can look at the clock and our word count. How are we doing?

Now, here’s the trick to achieve a flow state - if our activity is too challenging OR too easy, we won’t get into flow. We’ll get frustrated if it’s too hard or bored if it’s too easy. Need to make it harder? Up your word count for hte hour or tighten your deadline to 45 minutes. Need to make it easier, slow your roll and lower your word count, and loosen your self-imposed deadline.

If we have a clear goal, immediate feedback, and we feel challenged but capable, we can enter the flow state where distractions vanish, we lose our sense of time, confidence grows, and we find an intrinsic enjoyment in what we’re doing.

Holy cow - we can get into that state from creating some clear criteria for ourselves. Okay, that’s all great, but how does this relate to deadlines?

Well, if a deadline is a goal with a specific time or date for finishing, then we can use them to get into a flow state and write. And we can use this to achieve our big writing deadlines, whether their self-imposed or external.

Types of deadlines
And these are the two types of deadlines you can use to achieve your writing goals.

Self-imposed Deadlines
External Deadlines

Let’s talk about Self-imposed Deadlines first. These are the deadkubes you set for yourself that can help you get into the flow state and get the book written. They also might be bigger, if you’re self-publishing, like the date you want to hit publish on Amazon. We get to choose these dates.

They’re challenging because you have to hold yourself to accountable to actually meeting your deadline.

A self imposed deadline might look like:
writing 5000 words a week by Sunday night, or 500 words a day, whatever it is. You don’t go to bed till it’s done
Setting specific dates by which you have your book drafted, revised, edited - these dates are important otherwise you can endlessly tinker with your words. You MUST decide at some point that your work is DONE and ready for the world, and if you do that by choosing a date. Great.

How to set Realistic Self-Imposed Deadlines

You want to be careful with these. Self-imposed deadlines can be super helpful...until they aren't. Often as writers, we set deadlines for ourselves to keep us moving forward, but often those deadlines are arbitrary and force us to publish or share work that could use a little more development, revision, or editing.

Your book will require as much time as it requires. You can accept this, or you can fight it. It doesn’t really matter but your book will take the time it takes and much of this is dependent on you and your process, how much you procrastinate, lack focus, spend time researching rather than writing, write backwards and focus on editing what you’ve got rather than writing forward and getting new words down, have life happen and pull you away from your work.

Don’t set deadlines to publish and meet those with a book that’s not ready, but you publish just because “we said we would" (to ourselves) and dammit, we're holding ourselves accountable. It’s okay to shift a deadline as long as you ultimately meet it.

So, when setting self-imposed deadlines, make sure you give yourself enough time. Doin’t randomly choose a date taht will require you to write 3000 words a day for the next month when you’ve never written that many words in a single day in your life.
Be realistic.

So what’s realistic, set deadlines that you can reach and achieve without massive amounts of anxiety. You want to push yourself, but you don’t want to set yourself up for failure or publishing something that’s not ready.

Rather than holding ourselves to our deadline when our work might not be quite ready (I've been there and done that), take a breath and ask yourself some questions to evaluate whether your self-imposed deadline is realistic for you:

Is thisl deadline reasonable? Is it possible, based on my past performance and habits, for me to reach this?

Would giving myself another week or month allow me to develop and polish it further or am I just tinkering?
Do I want to give myself extra time because I’m scared of sharing it? OR does it really need more revision and editing?

If pushing back a deadline feels like you’ve failed, can you reframe allowing yourself some more time and easing up on your deadline, not as a failure, but as a step toward becoming a better writer and sharing your best work?

Can you reframe your deadline as a starting point for polishing your work rather than a time to publish a piece that might not be ready? This was a strategy that a client embraced after really wanting to publish an important piece. It wasn’t a book but an essay that she wanted to share online on an important date. We were scheduled to work on it when she had a death in the family. She was distraught but just couldn't give the piece the time it needed to get published on her special date. So, we reframed the date that she’d wanted to publish. Instead of the final publish date, it became the day where she announced a series of posts that would be coming over the next month. Did she make her deadline? Yep - she announced her series of posts were coming. She shared a bit of what she wanted to say, and releasing that pressure allowed her to focus on writing and developing her ideas without that arbitrary date looming. And, she got great encouragement and feedback on her little “teaser” post.

If your piece is as good as you feel you can make it, go ahead, publish, and meet that deadline. But if you know in your heart of hearts that it's not ready, be willing to show yourself some grace and flexibility allow yourself the time to write your best work.

Next we have external deadlines. These are the deadlines that we require we have our work done for someone or something else. For example,

Getting a chapter to your critique partner by Thursday morning every week, or every other week
Getting your completed manuscript, that you’ve already paid, to a developmental or copy editor who’s give you a due date
Getting chapters or drafts to a book coach, again whom you’ve paid, and who’s give you a deadline to submit pages or an outline or whatever stage of the process you’re working on
Setting up a pre-order date on Amazon which you can only change ONE time or Amazon will put you in pre-order jail and you lose the privilege for a year
Signing up for a conference where you’ll have a chance to pitch your book idea to agents or editors and you need a solid manuscript because what if they want you to send them pages? You gotta be ready.

These are external deadlines where not only you but others are helping hold you accountable to meeting.

How to meet your deadline, whether it’s self-Imposed OR External
Okay, you’ve got a deadline, whether it’s self-imposed or external. It’s realistic. You’re excited to get started.

How do you meet it? You work backwards and break your goal down into achievable bite-sized pieces. Brian Moran goes into this in great depth in the book the 12 Week Year and while he’s not specifically talking about writing, the reverse engineering process works.

Basically, break your big project like writing the first draft of your memoir or novel down into smaller steps.
How many chapters or words are you shooting for?
Based on your deadline, whether it's self-imposed or external, how many words or pages do you need to write per month? Per week? Per day on your writing days?
Do you need to build in time for research?
Based on your past experience, how fast do you write?
How many days per week, and hours per day on writing days, do you need to devote to writing?

Break it ALL down and then, the most important step..PUT IT ON THE CALENDAR. Block it off. This is your sacred writing time. For me, this happens first thing in the morning, usually from 6:30-ish to 8:30 ish. Sometimes I work on my current novel project, sometimes I work on podcast episodes, but I write. This isn’t email or social media time. It’s coffee and writing time. Period.

When I was teaching full-time, I wrote my fiction and blog posts earlier, usually, from about 5:15-6:15 am because I had to leave for work no later than 7.

How do I make these writing sessions effective?
Well, first, I put them on the calendar. And I actually write. I will be honest, there are days when life happens and my writing time gets pushed back. Or I make the grave mistake of opening up my browser and checking email. But most days, this morning time is MY writing time. So find a time that works for you. Maybe it’s mid-morning, afternoon, or evenings. I’m a morning person, always have been. I do my journal writing at night when my brain is calmer. Do what works for you. Find your creative time zone and take full advantage of that. THIS is what will get you into that flow state that will allow the words to come that I talked about earlier.

Then, during your writing sessions there are a few things you can do to help get the words down and get into that flow state.

My favorite is also to use a Pomodoro timer. You can find these online. Basically, you hit start and you work, totally focused for 25 minutes. That’s the deadline. Write as much as you can, on one project, with no distractions for 25 minutes. Turn your phone off, turn notifications off, and just write. It’s a time deadline. It totally works.
AFter 25 min. A little bell dings and you get a 5 min. Break to go get more coffee and do a quick stretch.
Repeat for as many times as you can.

Psychologist Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, has shown in her research that when people are intrinsically motivated, they produce more creative work than those who are working for extrinsic rewards, like a paycheck or some other reward. Focusing during your writing sessions on the joy you get from creating, from telling your storiees, from sharing your ideas, can help you write better and access that flow state AND more creative ideas. When we can focus on our gratitude, we use this chunk of time to write and pay attention to the joy we feel in the creative process.

You can also set up little challenges for yourself for each writing stint, like trying to get a higher word count for the next half hour than we did in the last half hour.

The Flow research and Dr. Amabile’s research show that we can use these chunks of time, these small little deadlines, to get into a flow state, and amp up our creativity as we write.

Deadlines work. Whether they’re self-imposed or external, they push us. We can set deadlines to make sure we hit the finish line of the BIG project. We can also set mini-deadlines for each writing session with ourselves to help us get into a flow state and write our best work.

Just remember, set realistic deadlines that don’t challenge you too much. Those are crushing, won’t allow you to get into a flow state, and make you feel like a failure.

And remember, all it is is a goal with a date.

So what’s your next goal with a date? Mine is to finish the draft of my historical novel, The Fiddler’s Son, by mid-July.

If you’d like a little accountability, head on over to my FB group, the Book Writer’s Workshop, and share your deadline for a project!

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