“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” — Douglas Adams
Some time ago, I came to realise I was becoming reliant on an unsustainable source of energy. Not the subject of progressive government taxation, or of pressure from environmental groups. Or coffee, though I run on that too.
The fuel in question is the stomach-churning, bum-clenching urgency of the imminent deadline.
There’s a phrase in the film Boyhood that captures it: voluptuous panic. It’s the pure, self-inflicted drama of a rapidly approaching precipice, following an indeterminate period of procrastination.
And it can conjour Amazing Things.
It can Produce Work Miracles At Short Notice. It can Get Me Up When It’s Still Dark Outside (Even In Summer). It can also readily Spoil Appetites. Result In Missed Appointments. And Ruin A Sunday (Or Any Day).
And crucially it can Release Me From The Burden of Deciding When Something’s Good Enough. That last one’s where it gets juicy.
Because in creative work, there’s no objective measure of when something’s finished. And as the creator, immersed in the doing, it’s often a challenge to make that decision.
What better than an artificial constraint to make the judgement for you? “It’s finished, because it’s time it has to be finished.”
There are some attractive story opportunities in this too, for the ego to exploit.
Did the result of adrenaline-fuelled labour go down well? Well, then that’s a heroic effort. Damn, I’m good.
Did it not go down so well? Maybe not my fault. After all, I didn’t really have enough time.
Either way, it’s a rush when you finish with moments to spare. Having been up most of the night, maybe several nights. Having traversed the valleys of Blank Despair, into the sunny uplands of Something To Show. Nothing much beats that feeling.
But it’s brief. And what goes up… Once the adrenaline’s drained away and the body’s suppressed demands assert themselves, euphoria’s forgotten fast.
In my experience, what’s produced by this cycle of procrastination, panic, relief and regret isn’t good work, not enough of the time to justify it as a process. It discourages collaboration. It generates excuses that get in the way of receiving useful feedback. And it’s sometimes painful for those around me.
Disrupting the habit
I now have a few trusty ways to disrupt this pattern.
To avoid procrastinating ahead of solo work, there’s the one-hour rule — tell yourself you only have to spend an hour tackling something and then you can stop if you want (I almost always go on, quite happily, into hour two).
To get over the tyranny of coming up with good ideas, there’s the worst ideas exercise- articulating the worst ways you might think to approach a project or piece of copy (it ‘breaks the seal’, and something interesting often surfaces anyway).
And there’s the simple, prescient act of breaking work into a series of milestones, and making a point of sharing progress, rather than allowing the schedule to build to a single, dramatic win / lose reveal.
But the foundation is just noticing. Noticing the cycle, the drama, and the ego. Talking about it. Breaking the spell of it.
It’s work in progress. The pattern’s habitual to me — I can get sucked back in, just like that.
But the more aware of it I become, the less power it has. It’s not so voluptuous now.
Slightly adapted from an original article written for The Human in the Machine on superyesmore September 2017
Image by tictac on Flickr, reproduced under CC BY 2.0