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?
Thanks for this perfectly-timed post, John.
Incidentally, I read this post at the time I did because I fell prey to the Parkinson’s Law. And it’s great to read something that tells me exactly why this happens to me.
I’ve been able to overcome this issue many times. And the only strategy that seems to work for me is finding motivation in a big project I want to do.
In addition, I have found that using Site Blocker add-ons, like block site on Mozilla helps me get the social media distraction out of the way.
In summary, though, I think it wouldn’t matter the number of productivity tools one employs, if the underlying desire is missing, high productivity cannot be attained.
Thanks once again for this post.
John Soares says
Craig, I really like the idea of blocking specific sites. There are many programs that do this, and they prevent you from checking email, or going on Facebook, or even going on the Internet at all.
We each have to find what works best for us.
Jake Poinier says
I’m reminded of the legendary motivational speaker Bob Moawad, who said something to the effect of “You say you do your best work at the last minute, but the truth is you do your *only* work at the last minute.”
I’ll be honest, I’ve fought procrastination my whole life. The toughest items to get done are the projects for myself; the paid projects for clients, not as much. My strategy generally falls in line with your smaller-chunks idea, with an incentive: “If I get X done by 11 a.m., I can go for a run/do some errands/play around on the internet.”
John Soares says
Jake, I definitely agree with the Bob Moawad quote.
I’ve also had to deal with procrastination, and I also use a reward system similar to yours.
Whoa, John! Are you reading my mind?
After going through THIS VERY THING–within the past week–it became crystal clear that I need short, tight deadlines. In the past, I “kind of” knew it, but this week, it’s become law for me. It’s the only way for me to actually get anything done.
AND I need accountability–something I didn’t fully appreciate before.
John Soares says
It can help a lot to find someone to hold you accountable. It can be another writer, or it can be a friend or family member.
Cathy Miller says
I would never say I don’t procrastinate; however, I rarely scramble in the last minute to get a project done by the deadline. I build in time to let draft copy marinate so the task I am doing as the deadline approaches is final editing.
I think this stems from my own neurosis about hitting deadlines. 😉 About the only time there is a problem is if the client has not hit their commitments. That’s why I now have dates for the initial planning call and the receipt of all requested information written into our Agreement. That way if you do have to alter the delivery date, the client is onboard (usually). 😉
John Soares says
Cathy, you embody a key characteristic of successful writers: getting the draft done early so subsequent editing is thorough.
And I think we’ve all had those clients who make us late because they are late.
Anne Wayman says
When I first started writing for magazines I didn’t know that most, or many, writers slipped deadlines… learned that when I became an editor of a magazine… figured that since I’d learned to keep to deadlines I would continue it… it’s a practice of mine now.
John Soares says
Anne, I wonder what percentage of writing projects are actually turned in late?
I’ve only been late a couple of times in my life, and that’s with probably 500 or so projects over 20-plus years.
KeriLynn Engel says
I do struggle with procrastination, so the beginning of the story sounds like me… but I worry so much about missing deadlines that I get my butt in gear and leave plenty of time for edits & try to get most things in early. It’s the same anxiety I get about being late to events- I’m one of those people who’s always way too early ;D
Plus I’ve found that it’s much easier to write quality articles if I have plenty of time to edit with fresh eyes! I never turn in a first draft. My first drafts can be pretty bad, but it’s hard to see until the next day!
John Soares says
Kerilynn, I’m just like you. I write first drafts early, let them sit, and then edit them with fresh eyes, often multiple times.
And you bring up an important motivation factor: anticipating the pain of missing the deadline. That’s a big one for me!
Jennifer Mattern says
Great post John. 🙂
I’ve always been the type who works best under pressure. So when I’m confronted with a too-long deadline, I do tend to push too much of the work to the end of that period. I get around it with most client projects by setting my own deadlines, and also using timers. My favorites are e.ggtimer.com and a Pomodoro app on my phone. Even a 25 minute work session can be enormously productive when you’re in that challenge mode. 🙂
John Soares says
Jenn, I often use similar methods.
One of my favorites is to just turn off the modem for a set amount of time, usually at least an hour. That way I can’t get online even if I want to.
Jenn Mattern says
Unfortunately a lot of my work requires me to have internet access (such as keeping access to a client’s website today for access to stats while working on a press release draft). But that’s a good idea for when I don’t need it. I can turn the wi-fi off with the tap of a button, and seeing an error message or two might be just what I need to snap me back into the right frame of mind. 🙂
Gene Burnett says
I never understand why people wait and wait and then rush to finish. Be it taxes, job deadlines, or whatever. I find having a project hovering in the back of my “to do” list very stressful. So when I accept a project, I start right away…I outline the work and set up my basic plan. Then, I revisit it as the time passes, each time getting more and more serious…at the end, I still enjoy the “pressure”, that late innings crunch feeling…but I’ve done most of the work. The crunch is about getting it as close to perfect as I can. Example: I start my taxes as soon as I get my last 1099…I at least sort out the basic numbers, get everything I need in one folder…Then a little while later, I get out last years word doc. with the basic outline I give my accountant. I copy it, and change the years to the current year…maybe drop it in a folder on my desktop. Then a little while later I get more serious and start adding up the numbers and dropping them into the word doc. Then a little while later, I go back and double check all my numbers. I might wait another week and do that again. When I’m sure it’s all cool, I print it and take it to my accountant. Still weeks ahead of the 15th. When there’s a big complicated project with parts that are out of my control, I at least get my parts done asap, so I’m ready when those other parts are. I just don’t like the stress of having to do it all under pressure. My two cents. ;~) GB
John Soares says
Gene, you have a great process for getting important things done.
I usually follow a similar process for writing projects and other matters. For example, when I’m going on a trip, I start packing at least a couple of days before, and I try to be all done the night before.
Gene Burnett says
Right. I do the same thing whenever we’ve moved. As soon as we know we’re going to be moving, we start the process and start packing some of the stuff I know we won’t be needing before the move begins. It’s still a bit of a crunch at the very end but just a bit of one. I used to be a mover and I can’t tell you how many people were still doing major packing the day of the move. And sometimes it really cost them, because we would just be sitting around waiting for them to finish…and making the same amount of money as we would if we were working. ;~) GB
John Soares says
Stephanie and I are also good about planning moves. It helps that we’ve pared down all of our stuff. But like you, as soon as we know, we’re going through stuff, packing the unessential items, getting the boxes, etc.
I’m looking at it from the other side, I have hired a number of writers. What worked for me was to give writers more incentives, more work when they finish early. This tends to work well.
Robert Traynor says
How do I meet all my deadlines? Simple! I just imagine a hulking standover guy pressing a gun to my head, yelling, “Hurry the %@!* up!”
Diane Holcomb says
Oh yeah, that’s me to a “T”. When I’m laboring over a project it’s usually because I’m trying to force it. If I back off and then rewrite it quickly from memory, it’s much better. The timer is great, except when I don’t honor the “ding”.
Mitch @ YourCvBuilder says
I’m not a freelance writer myself, but i’m a freelance developer, and code expert and have been freelancing for at least 5 years now,
while i agree with you that sometimes boosting your motivation can help, challenging yourself and thinking about your bigger goals and why you’re doing this etc.., but no matter how motivated you are, without a practical and technical plan to make your work easier you would not be able to get this going for a long term, eventually motivation fades with your mood, if you’re not comfortable with your working situation.
first i thing i do is set up a realistic deadline, don’t promise to deliver in a short period you can’t possible meet on a normal working situation, and get all stressed out about it, and second i break down my task into smaller tasks for each day,
and then i even reward myself, even if i completed my small task for today, i take the rest of the day off do something i enjoy.
have a clear organized and most importantly not too overloaded schedule.
Many thanks and Best wishes!
Some very good advice in there. It’s true, work always expands to fit the time available for it. I create tight self-imposed deadlines for every project and every task within the project. I’m very strict. I scare myself sometimes… but I never miss a deadline 🙂
Parvati Singh says
Thank you for your post. I think that this time mismanagement issue is not unique to freelance writers though. We are all guilty of procrastinating, well at least I am. You know how it goes: procrastinators unite! tomorrow!
Setting deadlines for yourself in all ventures of life is so important because time really does just fly on by while you are not paying attention. Set deadlines but also set goals. Reflect on your goals every few months and when you see a goal should be nearing, set deadlines to make it happen. You wanted to go and see the Tulips in Holland for your wife’s 30th birthday? Well today is her 29th so you better start planning things.
I kind of have a counter to this. What is perceived as procrastination may be part of the process of organizing your thoughts for how to approach this writing.I sometimes have my best ideas on how to approach a task when I am doing something unrelated to the task. I don’t advocate missing deadlines but I have seen many people who I would describe as scatter brained but brilliant. These are people who seem to procrastinate but then when they do produce the work it exceeds your expectations as far as quality goes, sometimes being the best work you have seen. There should be a balance, deadlines that are too loose may not give the discipline to work effectively, deadlines that are too tight may force rushed work that does not produce the best quality work either.