Hey freelancers, why do your writing projects take you all the way up to the deadline to complete, and why do you sometimes miss deadlines, even when you had plenty of time to do the project?
It’s because you’re making a key time management mistake: you’re letting yourself fall victim to Parkinson’s Law.
Parkinson’s Law? Huh?
Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
—Cyril Northcote Parkinson
This famous quote is the first sentence in an essay that Parkinson, a British historian and author, wrote in a 1955 article for The Economist. It’s been applied extensively to both business and government bureaucracies.
But it also applies to you and your freelance writing.
A Typical Freelance Writer and Her Deadline
She gets a good assignment from one of her favorite clients, or even a new client. She calculates a ballpark figure of how long it will take her to do all the research, to conduct and process any interviews, to write the first draft, to edit, to write a subsequent draft, and eventually get to the polished product she’ll send off to the client.
She’ll take this number, say ten hours total. She’ll figure “Hey, I’ve got three weeks to get this done. No need to jump right in today. I’ll get started next week and I’ll have plenty of time to finish it. I’ll even finish early!”
She smiles as she imagines how pleasantly surprised the client will be when the piece pops into his inbox a week early. Wow!
But then next week comes. There’s still plenty of time, so she jots down a few notes for the project, but then tells herself she has other things she wants to do, like read her new book and go out for coffee with her friends.
Plenty of time still!
Then it’s Monday of the last week, and the project is due on Friday afternoon. She starts thinking that she’d better get going if she wants to get the project in early.
After some dilly-dallying with less important matters, she finally makes a half-hearted start. She has an entire week, and only 10 hours of work to do. She can still finish by Tuesday afternoon, no problem.
But then, as she starts doing her research, she keeps getting distracted: Facebook, text messages, the laundry, her needy cat. Suddenly it’s late Tuesday afternoon, and still the research isn’t completed and there are no words written.
Wednesday morning she’s fired up, ready to get the damned thing done. But more unimportant things intrude, and before she knows it, she’s barely finished her research by the time she closes up shop for the day.
Thursday morning and she’s on fire again! Go, go, go! But then procrastination kicks in and she decides she needs to spend some time in her favorite writer’s forums and do some networking on Twitter. She resigns herself to not getting the project done early.
Finally it’s Friday morning. Holy Shit! She is truly motivated now as panic sets in. She does make some good headway in the morning, but then decides to take a long lunch, telling herself she needs the break. There’ll be enough time to finish in the afternoon.
Come the afternoon, she’s sweating bullets trying to get the project done and do credible job. But her brain freezes up with writer’s block and at 4:30 she emails her client, asking if she can turn it in Monday morning.
Here’s How You Beat Parkinson’s Law
Set Tight Deadlines — And Meet Them
If you’re working on a big project, break it into smaller chunks. Set a time to complete a chunk that you know will require you to work quickly and with complete focus. Then start a timer set for the allotted time and get going. (I use an electronic kitchen timer, but you can use a stopwatch, an electronic watch, or a simple computer program.)
Ramp Up Your Competitive Instinct
See how fast and how well you can get a task done. If it’s a writing project, break it down to a certain number of words in a certain time, and drive yourself to get it done in an even shorter time. You’ll eventually find that you write faster and better and get more done. Just be sure you’re still doing high-quality work.
Think About Why You Are Doing This Project
Is it to pay the bills? To pay for that vacation to Costa Rica? To allow you to work on your novel?
Find the big reason why you need to get the project done.
Overcome Writer’s Block and Procrastination
I wrote an inexpensive ebook on the subject: 50 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block and Procrastination. Short and direct, it will get you on track.
Use Good Time Management Skills
See my recent post “8 Time Management Techniques for Writers.”
A Non-Writing Example
I set time deadlines for my strength-training workouts. I go as fast as I can from one exercise to another without allowing myself to rest (although I don’t rush the actual weight sets; it’s important to have perfect posture and movement and timing). This way I get my strength training completed more quickly, and I also turn strength training into an aerobic workout.
Has Parkinson’s Law hurt you in your writing career and your life? Any wisdom to share about how you beat Parkinson’s Law?