Writing with a Deadline

When are you most productive? Whenever I ask this question of my colleagues, the most frequent response is: "I'm most productive right before I leave on vacation." Or the “last few hours before leaving for a long weekend” or “before leaving for a conference.”
Why would this be anyone's most productive time? Jack Groppel, author of The Corporate Athlete, says it's because you have a deadline. You must be out the door, on a train, or at the airport by a specific time. And you also know exactly what you must do, your top priorities, for the limited amount of time before departure.
What would happen if you worked like this every day? What if you made a list of priorities and then set a deadline for getting them done? Could these short sprints make you more productive?
Few projects are truly open-ended, but they may feel like they are. Write a dissertation. Write a book. Write a chapter of 200 pages. Write an article of 30 pages. We know we can't accomplish that in a day. So we write as if we had a week or month or year to finish (which we do).
Let me emphasize: I am not suggesting that you create pressure or anxiety...not more than you already experience. And although some people say they work better under pressure, this pressure and anxiety is not what produces the best writing. You might produce decent writing and you might get the work done. But it's not the pressure that contributes to good writing. It's highly likely that your work would be even better without the pressure and anxiety. When people say they work better under pressure, what they really mean is that they work better with a deadline.
So set your own deadlines. “By the end of the day I will have written 500 words.” “I will draft five pages.” “I will write the first section of chapter one.” Then set your pace by the available time you have to write and meet your goal and deadline. This method works especially well when producing your first draft of any section.
Eviatar Zerubavel, author of The Clockwork Muse, writes that when he works with a deadline, he sets his pace by determining how much he needs to write and "divides the estimated length (in terms of number of pages) by the pace (in terms of number of pages a day)" to determine the amount of time he needs to write (p. 69). He estimates that he writes 1 to 2 pages a day; he lists each manuscript section by number of pages planned for that section; then he calculates that his book manuscript of six chapters will require 93 days of writing at one to two pages a day. He prepares a calendar by marking all the days he will have time to write (by crossing off days that his teaching or vacation or travel schedule will prevent him from writing). Then he makes himself write on those days, on that schedule, at that pace. (If he writes every day he finishes his book in 13 weeks, if he writes six days a week, he finishes in 15 weeks; if he writes only two days a week, then he needs to write for 46 weeks to complete his manuscript.)
Can you stick to this kind of schedule? Would writing with a goal and deadline each day (rather than a more open-ended 90-minute writing session) work for you? It’s another strategy that might work for you.
Try writing with a daily goal and your own internal deadline and see what it does for your productivity. It may help you to reduce procrastination, avoid excessive writing or editing, and help you get the first draft, or the last draft, out the door.
Groppel, J. (2000). The Corporate Athlete: How to Achieve Maximal Performance in Business and Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Zerubavel, E. (1999). The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Some of the information in the BreakWriting postings is drawn from previously published work, and I have tried to properly attribute the ideas and work of others. If I fail to do so, please tell me so I can clarify and correct (Graduate Mentor).