Ever notice how you tend to deal with things that have a due date or an expiration date (and a punishment for missing that date) first while you let other things slide? You read your library books before the books from your own collection because they’re due on a certain date. If you don’t return them you’ll owe money. You eat the food that’s about to expire even if it’s not what you’d prefer because the uneaten food is a waste of money. You hurry up and finish the project for which you borrowed a neighbors’ power saw because if you don’t return the saw on the date you promised, you’ll jeopardize the friendship. You write the article that has a deadline because missing it means no paycheck (and probably no further work from that publication).
All of these scenarios have a due date and a punishment attached for missing that date. The deadline and the punishment combine to motivate you to do these things, even if you’d rather be doing something else. This aversion to punishment can be used to further your writing career and help defeat procrastination. But what about the problem of not all writing projects having due dates? When you’re working on your first novel, non-fiction book proposal, or collection of short stories and you don’t have a contract, how do you impose due dates and punishments?
There are a couple of ways to do this. First, you can simply write the date on your calendar and come up with a punishment that you will impose on yourself if you don’t make it. Maybe you won’t take that weekend trip you’ve planned and for which you’ve already paid a non-refundable deposit, or you won’t go to that concert for which you’ve already bought tickets. Whatever punishment you choose, it has to hurt. You can’t just say, “Oh, I won’t watch my favorite TV show.” That’s not enough pain because, really, you can catch the show later. The punishment has to hurt monetarily or emotionally. Or you have to also attach the risk of hurting other people, such as by skipping that family trip or backing out of a an event that you promised to organize.
And the biggie: You have to stick to the punishment. You can’t let yourself off the hook even once. Do it once and you’ll do it every time. You have to go through with whatever punishment you choose or it won’t be an effective way to boost your output. You have to choose a punishment that not only hurts, but one which you will actually impose. “I’ll throw myself off a cliff if I don’t finish this book by July 22nd,” isn’t realistic. (Unless you have some serious issues, in which case you need a mental health professional. Right now.) “I’ll sell one-third of my beloved jazz records if I don’t make the deadline,” is more realistic.
If you’re not willing or able to impose your own punishments, enlist someone else to help you. Make yourself accountable to a friend or family member. If you set a due date and miss it, have that person come stand over you until you complete the punishment. Make them stand over you until you make the call to cancel that trip. Have them stand over you while you run those concert tickets through the shredder. Make them stand by while you tell those people who were counting on you that you won’t be able to do whatever it was you promised you’d do. Choose your person wisely. They have to be tough enough not to give in when you beg and pushy enough to make you do what you need to do.
Yes, this is a harsh way to improve productivity and make sure you reach your daily word count. Not everyone will respond to these tactics, but it is human nature to do those things with due dates first. This is simply a way of making human nature work for you. If you have trouble completing open-ended projects because they can always be done “later,” try imposing due dates and punishments on yourself. Remove “later” from the equation and see if you don’t work harder and smarter to avoid those punishments.
(Photo courtesy of Alan Cleaver)