4 Ways to Make a Deadline Without Going Crazy

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Do you keep up with your writing projects? Do you hand in your work on time? And how much drama do you like in your life?

Are you a drama queen? I was. I realized years ago that I liked excitement, and I created too much of it, especially when I procrastinated and then went crazy as deadlines loomed. Does this sound familiar?

You can learn good work habits, but doing so means giving up the adrenaline rush. Instead, you become a planner. It might sound boring, but these techniques have helped me avoid all-nighters.

1. Take Small Steps

Years ago I was driving to an appointment with my boss when I confessed, tearfully, that I felt overwhelmed by my workload. He gave me advice that was just right at the time: “Break it down into small steps. Otherwise you’re too overwhelmed to move forward. Just put one foot in front of the other and accomplish small things every day.”

It was good advice then, even though it sounded obvious. I needed a reminder. It’s also great advice for a big project like writing a cookbook, which can seem overwhelming at the beginning.

On days when I felt overwhelmed, there was always something small to do. I could make folders for each chapter and a folder within for recipes. That way I was still working on the book, taking small steps.

2. Get Organized with a Schedule

Probably the most important thing I learned when writing a cookbook manuscript was to make a schedule. I always resist at first, because I don’t like feeling locked in. But they are a lifesaver and actually reduce stress in the long run, because you make measured progress.

For a cookbook I turned in last month, I created a schedule by month. It had three deadlines for each chapter that synthesized many smaller steps. It helped me and my co-author stay on track. He made his deadlines, developing the recipes, and I made mine, testing them and writing the chapters.

You might think you don’t need a schedule, but you’re wrong. The time goes by quickly, and before you know it, you’ve got one month left and four chapters to write. No one wants to be in that position.

3. Do the Work in Front of You

When I first started freelancing 18 years ago, a publisher gave me steady work. He had a staff of writers but needed me for special projects. A high-energy guy, he was always on the prowl for new clients and more work. I asked him how he kept up, he said it was because he always did the work in front of him.

His theory was that if you get pending projects done, you have room for the next one. If you don’t, something really good might come along, and you have to turn it down. I think of this advice almost every day. It’s a way to clear the decks, to feel like I’m making progress, and to keep myself from feeling overwhelmed.

4. Stop Being a Drama Queen

As a former editor, I didn’t like the panic that writers put me through when they didn’t make their deadlines. Their panic transferred to me, because I had to play catch-up to get the story into production. Believe me, editors don’t enjoy working with writers who can’t get it together. They want writers who get it done when they say they will.

So give the previous steps a try. They make life a little more even. So far this year I’m about to turn in my second manuscript. I’m not exhausted, and it wasn’t insane at the end. Now I’ve got one more to go!

How about you? I’d love to know what you do to keep on track with your writing.

(Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Parts of this post appeared previously in my quarterly newsletter. If you’d like to receive it, sign up here.)


  1. says

    Some days my writing doesn’t flow. The copy isn’t good. The words are awkward. Many writers say that is when you need to take a break, get a change of scenery, go for a walk, clear your head. I don’t do that. I write my ideas even if the words aren’t coming out right. I give up on liking the work and just type the thoughts. And then I save that draft and go to work on something else. I know that I will revisit it, usually multiple times for multiple edits so I just let it be in it’s awkward state. I will find the words I want and it will take shape at another time. Having a draft of something, even a poorly written draft, feels like progress and helps me along the road to completion.

    • diannejacob says

      You keep your butt in the chair and you keep going, Cynthia. I think that’s terrific. It’s hard to stay with the idea that it’s going to develop into something if you just keep at it.

      I don’t have a problem with taking a break, as long as I come back to it. Sometimes I get distracted and then I don’t.

  2. says

    What I do when I start to feel my drama queen rising within, and I begin to freak out because I begin to look at the big picture and all I need to get done and what I plan to accomplish over the next year or two….Is take a breath and just remind myself to take it one day at a time. What can I accomplish TODAY to move me toward that goal. “One day at a time” is the mantra I repeat to myself when I’m feeling overwhelmed. When I look at it that way, I think, “Hey, I can accomplish that. No problem.” Of course a person panics when they don’t schedule things out in small sections. If I woke up this morning and my to-do list said “#1. Write a Novel” rather than “Outline chapter one,” I’d probably pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep.

    • diannejacob says

      Ha ha, good one Susan. Yes, writing a novel is not a good thing to put on a to-do list as number 1.

      The question “What can I accomplish today?” is similar to taking small steps. It lets you break things down into doable projects. Same with “one day at a time.” All good stuff to stay grounded and keep from freaking out.

  3. says

    As always, your advice is ZeBest, Dianne!

    I’ve learned that, when facing deadlines, it’s best to just keep putting one hoof in front of the other — and not allowing myself to get tangled up in my own stripes.

    • diannejacob says

      Hah! Yes, hunkering down. It’s not always fun, but it does get the job done. And I find that once I get into it, time flies by. I hope you find that as well, ZeBot.

  4. says

    Thanks for these helpful suggestions Dianne. I’ve found the hardest part being self employed is planning what your regular daily and weekly routine is. The advice on getting organized with a schedule is spot on. I think a lot of us forget that setting aside one or two hours to prepare a grand plan and organize the entire project (ie writing a book) will help prevent some stressful days or weeks near the end of the project. Depending on what I am working on I like to leave some days in between my ‘finished’ piece and the deadline to post or hand in to be able to see it with refreshed and new eyes to make sure everything is clear and the way I intended. Thanks for the reminder!

    • diannejacob says

      True. It’s easy to get distracted when you’re self employed. This morning I spent an hour figuring out what to make for lunch and dinner based on disparate ingredients in my fridge and freezer. And that led to cleaning a freezer drawer and looking through a few cookbooks for inspiration. All of a sudden it’s 10 a.m. A pleasant source of procrastination, eh?

      Organizing a big project feels really overwhelming. It may take me a lot of one-hour times set aside to get a handle on it.

      I am at the end of a big project now, and I have left it in a completed state for a week. My problem is that I’m so sick of reading it I can’t bear to open the files one more time! But I will. A good reminder, Cameron.

  5. says

    I actually have a very hard time creating my own deadlines and sticking to a schedule when I am the only one involved. Really bad. It is so easy to go off schedule and push back deadlines when there isn’t someone else waiting for something at the other end. This is where I really need help although I have to say that having a partner – for me it is Ilva – helps keep me somewhat on track because she is there demanding to see what I have done.

    On the other hand (and strangely enough) when I have an imposed deadline – an article due, a workshop approaching, a Plated Stories blog post to put up by Sunday night, I have absolutely no problem meeting that deadline and things flow much more easily and quickly. And I never think about small steps, rather I do what is in front of me as it arrives and the steps seem to take care of themselves.

    Should I be analyzed? I would like to know why this happens.

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