The task of managing deadlines is one of the leading causes of stress for many writers. Even seasoned professionals struggle with them, especially when they start to pile up. While there’s no “silver bullet” for eliminating deadline stress altogether, I’ve learned that a few simple management tricks keep me on schedule while keeping my blood pressure low. (By the way, they work just as well for designers and other creative pros too.)
1. Track all your deadlines in one place.
Using a system that allows you to see all your deadlines at a glance gives you a complete picture of what you’ve committed to. It also minimizes nasty surprises by reducing the chance that something will fall through the cracks. Whether you choose to go high- or low-tech depends on your personal preference. What matters most is that your system be easily accessible and flexible enough to make quick adjustments easily as priorities change.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with 3×5 cards in a pocket board, digital calendar programs, and an Evernote “hot list.” My current favorite is Wunderlist, a versatile app that synchronizes across all my digital devices and allows me to add and rearrange tasks easily.
2. Practice “The Great Deadline Deception”
Here’s a secret your editor doesn’t want you to know: the “official” deadline isn’t always the real deadline. Flaky writers often assume that this gives them a little extra time, but that strategy can backfire in a big way when the deadline turns out to be the deadline.
Instead, practice the same technique on yourself by assigning deadlines that are earlier than they need to be. If the client says the project is due Friday, mark it on your schedule as being due on Wednesday, or even earlier if it’s a big project. This may not seem like a very effective method since you’re fully aware of the game you’re playing with yourself, but believe me, it really works. Less than a week after I started using this method, I forgot that I had built this buffer into my schedule. I was about to stress out over a project that was going to take an extra day until I realized that I had two extra days built in. Not only did the client never know about my anxiety, they still got their job a day early.
3. Break big deadlines into smaller ones.
Big deadlines can be overwhelming, but small ones are so easy! If you have something huge looming over you, break it down. Say you’re designing a website. Instead of one entry that says “everything for the website needs to be done by date X, create smaller deadlines based on key milestones. For example, you may decide that wireframes need to be done by date X, copy draft 1 by date Y, and so forth.
4. Work ahead.
Believe it or not, if you don’t wait until the last minute to start working toward a deadline, it will be far less stressful. Sounds simple, right? Yet strangely, most creatives struggle with this one.
The key to this strategy is to prioritize your list from step 1, then start working on your tasks in that order. The most obvious way to prioritize is by due date. Getting the most pressing item out of the way first allows you to move on to the next hottest item, and so on.
If you regularly write similar scheduled pieces, such as blog posts or newsletters, it’s also helpful to have several extras loaded ahead of time. For example, I’m currently working with a graphic design partner on a new monthly newsletter. Part of our strategy was to write the first three months of content prior to launch. Not only did this give us a comfortable buffer to work with, it also made us aware of how different our newsletter topics will be. Some, for example, will more image-heavy than others. That was valuable information for the designer to have as he created the newsletter template.
Having a few months’ worth of content in the hopper doesn’t prevent you from being current or topical. If something big happens in your industry that you need to comment on right away, you can always slide something into the content schedule and push the “evergreen” pieces back.
5. Write in batches.
Getting started is often the most difficult part of the writing process. Whenever I have a lot of similar content to create, I try to write at least two or three of them in one session.
This practice will save you time by leveraging your momentum. It also improves the connections between related pieces. This can have significant value, whether you’re writing a series of blog posts that focus on different aspects of a larger topic over time or a set of brochures that will appear together in the same display.