As a professional, you make explicit commitments to every client you accept. Chief among these is your commitment to deliver your work-product on time.
You and your client may differ on matters of taste, opinion, values, payment, and more. But there is no room for disagreement as to deadlines. If you promise to deliver your work on the first of the month, delivering it any later than the first is a major violation of your professionalism and your commitment.
With professional deadlines so important, here are some techniques to help you meet every delivery date to which you commit:
Plan Your Work
Some creative work, and some creative people, are not amenable to planning. If the work is too loosely defined, you may not be ready to plan what you’re going to create, how you’re going to create it, or even what tools you’re going to need to complete the project. If you need the Muse to rev up your creative engine, it’s improbable that you can schedule a creative work session for any particular time, such as 10 AM next Tuesday.
Nevertheless, you can strive to make some progress toward completing the work, even if that progress is merely to do some preliminary thinking and feeling about where you want the project to go.
As you firm up your thoughts and feelings about the creative goal, you can usually begin to flesh out a more practical plan that specifies the tools you’ll need, the hours you’ll spend, the steps you’ll need to complete, the sequence in which you’ll want to complete them, and so forth.
Not everyone wants or needs a plan for every creative project, but it’s often a good idea to have one because it helps you focus, recognize your next step toward your goal, and appreciate the work and the steps you’ve already accomplished.
Work Your Plan
Many people say “If you’re failing to plan, you’re planning to fail.” That’s mostly true, as far as it goes. But if you want to meet your deadlines, it’s equally important to work your plan once you have it. Otherwise, what’s the point of planning?
As I’ve learned from my son, a plan need not be frozen in place. It’s OK to revise your plan in light of new information or new developments. But a willingness to revise a plan when and as needed does not invalidate the importance of having a plan in the first place.
Think of a plan as a roadmap. It gives you the advantage of knowing the lay of the land, where you’ve been, and where you’re heading. It lets you know where you are in relation to your goal, and it helps you identify your next step in making progress toward it. With all these advantages, the roadmap doesn’t prevent you from taking excursions off the main route, or staying longer at some waypoint that attracts your interest or demands your attention.
In terms of deadlines, your plan helps you recognize how much more work remains in the project you’re trying to complete, and helps you calculate how many hours of effort that work is likely to require.
Without a plan, your next deadline can loom up suddenly out of the darkness and slip on past before you can deal with it effectively.
On the other hand, if your plan shows that you have, for example, 100 hours until a deadline, and it helps you estimate that you need to put in 50 more hours of work before then, you’d have to be the opposite of a professional to let that deadline slip past you.
Work in Sync with Your Natural Patterns
As I’ve discussed in a previous post, creativity is a flow that almost always exhibits patterns you can follow to generate more and better work.
The basic idea is to recognize and sometimes even anticipate, based on your creative history, the dates and times you’re likely to be doing your best work – and your worst. This can help you select which project to pursue during upcoming periods of prime creativity, and which projects you can afford to kick down the road a while longer.
Allow Extra Time in Case of Work Problems and Delays
Let’s go back to that hypothetical where you had 100 hours remaining in which to complete 50 hours of creative work. Hypothetically, any professional worthy of the name can meet that deadline.
But in the real world, there are unpredictable variables that can turn those 50 hours of remaining work into 75 hours, and can eat into those 100 hours of available time until there are only 50 hours of actual working time left. In other words, completing a project in time to meet a deadline can be far more difficult than you anticipate.
That’s why a professional interested in meeting deadlines does not schedule work too tightly, with too little room for delays and errors. A novice or amateur may be proud of finishing a project an hour before it’s due. But the prudent, experienced professional plans to finish a day, maybe even a week, in advance of the deadline. This way, when delays crop up – as they very often do – the seasoned professional still has a reasonable possibility of meeting the deadline.
Learn to More Accurately Estimate Your Time Requirements
Much of this discussion on meeting deadlines has involved estimating time requirements. Obviously, if your estimates are overly optimistic, you’ll run the risk of missing some deadlines that you might have met had you estimated more accurately.
For this reason, accurately estimating time requirements for a project’s remaining work is a valuable tool in meeting deadlines.
One of the best ways to learn to more accurately estimate how much time a project will require is to log the time you spend, and later review those logs to learn from your own experiences.
Your time estimates will naturally become more accurate as you gain professional experience. But keeping and reviewing at time log will significantly shorten your learning curve. In a future blog, I’ll go over some techniques for tracking your time accurately and easily. On your own, you might find software to help you with this kind of a task.
The main point here is simple: The ability to set and meet deadlines without stressing yourself to the breaking point is a critically important tool in the professional writer’s toolkit. I’ve seen lots of professionals sharpen their deadline-meeting skills to better match the increasing scope of their projects, and the prestige and importance of their professional challenges. You can do this, too.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.