I want to talk about a phenomenon I've noticed happening to me far too often. The headline may be a little misleading; the drag happens more so when you don't have a headline. But here we go.
It happens when you’re self-directed. In a typical 9-5 job, you don’t have much choice about when you do a task. The task and its deadline are set by your boss or the customers, and you can’t deviate without (a) a good reason (b) serious consequences. It’s the same with school, except stricter – you must have x, y and z done for the next day or you’ll face consequences when your teacher checks the homework. In college, too, you have deadlines to have assignments in by, though I hear they’re not always set in stone. Even if you’re just helping a friend, you’re still held accountable to someone.
But when you’re doing your own projects, that all changes. I don’t know what your situation is. Maybe you’re on some quest for personal development, Steve Pavlina style. Maybe you’ve reached a quarter-/mid-life crisis and want to finally pursue your dreams. Or perhaps, like me, you’re just endlessly curious and attracted to autonomy and opportunity, like a moth to a flame, or a blogger to a cliché.
The freedom to work at your own pace is awesome, no one is denying that. I experience both ways, because I’m still in school, and when you’re working on a project you chose and love (i.e. one that motivates you), it’s infinitely better than working for someone/something else.
The bad part of having freedom to work at your own pace is having freedom to work at your own pace. Even if you love what you do (and you’d better), there’s always going to be times when you just don’t feel up for it. Maybe you’re sick, or school/college/day job is busy, or you’re feeling down. It’s oh-so-tempting to slow down or stop entirely. Just for a few days, you reason. Nobody cares if I finish this anyway. It doesn’t matter.
That can be fatal. It may be true that nobody else cares if you finish your project(s), but assuming you care (otherwise why did you start?) it absolutely still matters. Especially if you're a writer, very few people actually care whether you finish that book. It's just in your head until you get it down.
And when you’re managing yourself, momentum is, in my experience, the single most important thing to maintain. Momentum comes in the form of writing 1,000 (or 500, or 100) words in your novel every day, or working out consistently, or writing a blog post according to the schedule you set out. You want it to get to a point where you have so much momentum, such a huge streak built up, that you’re reluctant to break it.
I’m at that stage with Duolingo right now (55 day streak), but sadly nothing else. I’m trying to get there with this blog at the moment, though I unavoidably missed a day or two due to not having my laptop. But the one I’m really concerned about now is my novel. See, I am very close to the end. There are only about 1,000 words left in the entire first draft, and I could finish that today.
But that’s where Deadline Drag comes in.
At this point, I’m confident of finishing the novel. I don’t really need the rigorous don’t-break-the-chain of doing it every day to make sure I actually write it. So it’s easy to lull myself into complacency. After all, who cares? I don’t think I’ve quite fallen out of love with the novel, but when the ending could have been wrapped up a week ago it’s still dragging on.
It’s not that I’m not writing. I signed up for the 100-4-100 challenge over on the Go Teen Writers blog, where you write 100 words for 100 days, and I’ve managed to stay in the running so far. Rather, what I’m writing doesn’t push the plot forward. I know what needs to happen, and yet I’m stalling.
I think I’m afraid of finishing.
And so, without a deadline, I can keep coming up with excuses not to do it. I can keep blathering on when it’s a first draft, I just need to get to the end and let it rest for six weeks before revising it. I know that’s the best thing for it. So why aren’t I doing it?
Last year, I wrote a novel over the summer. I started it in June and finished it the day I returned to school, because that was the arbitrary deadline I set. I think I’m just going to have to do that again.
As of now, the arbitrary deadline for this novel’s first draft is tomorrow at 23:59.
Deadline drag can only get you if you let it. The first step to preventing it is noticing that it’s happening. Then you can take action.
Because there are few things more unsatisfying than a project that slowly dwindles to a stop. You want to go out with a triumphant bang.
Dear deadline: bite me.