The legendary father of productivity and personal leadership, Napoleon Hill, said, “A goal is a dream with a deadline.” I remind myself of this any time I have a project with a deadline attached to it.
I have to because, when someone says anything about meeting deadlines, my inner procrastinator’s instinct is to rebel and try to negotiate a later deadline (yes, even before starting on the project).
Fortunately, the professional in me activates the filter between my brain and my mouth and reminds me of another gem about meeting deadlines attributed to Robert Herjavec, from ABC’s Shark Tank. He said, “A goal without a deadline is just a dream.”
These two quotes really work well together… don’t you think?
In any event, those words shift me into productivity mode and remind me that, while deadlines can be stressful, I can achieve a whole lot more with deadlines than without them.
There’s a reason deadlines are important: Deadlines focus the mind. Without them, it’s easy to lose track of time, give in to domestic and work distractions, and wander down any of the myriad rabbit holes offered by the internet.
Over the years, I’ve found six strategies that help me with keeping on track and meeting deadlines…
1) Set a Realistic Deadline.
This may seem a little obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people set deadlines without thinking through how long it will really take to complete the project… never mind reviewing things that are already on the schedule.
It’s well-documented that we (both individuals and groups) predictably underestimate the time necessary to complete projects when setting deadlines.
To combat this tendency, follow these steps:
- Consider past projects of a similar nature and scope. How long did they take you? The answer to this question will give you a general idea of what to expect.
- Break down the project into the logical steps you’ll go through and assign a time to each. You’ll likely come up with a time frame similar to what you did in step one, but now you’ll have some milestones to keep you on track.
- Consider what you’ll need from other people. Have you worked with them before? How quickly do they usually deliver? Make sure you factor that into your timeline.
- And finally, take the numbers you come up with and multiply them by at least two. Do this for two reasons. First, unexpected things will come up. And second, it’s likely your memory of past projects isn’t perfect, so this extra time will insulate you.
Going through these four steps will help you get a pretty accurate idea of how long a project should take you… but you still have to stay on track. Which brings me to my second strategy…
2) Have a (Written) Plan for Meeting the Deadline.
If you think of completing a project like going on a journey, your first step is to pick your destination. This is the deadline.
The next step is to plan your route.
By designing a written plan, you get your brain thinking about the series of individual tasks required for completing the project and meeting your deadline. Now, your brain secretly doesn’t like to leave anything unfinished, so this gets it set on completing those tasks, even before you begin carrying them out.
In other words, writing out a project plan prepares your mind for the tasks required to complete it. That’s essential to meeting deadlines.
Additionally, writing down your plan (and deadline) forces you to look at specifics and to make concrete decisions on each of the necessary steps and when you can tackle them.
This strategy of having a written plan for completing a project is the secret sauce of meeting deadlines. I learned from Michael Hyatt’s coaching that committing to plans (or goals) in writing is important because it:
- Provides clarity
- Motivates you
- Forces you to filter other opportunities and obligations
- Helps you focus on the goal (rather than the push back)
- Forces you to see – and celebrate – progress
But, don’t mistake planning for doing. You need to quickly move from the planning stage into actually working on the project.
This strategy is largely about personal accountability. Having a set plan with internal deadlines will help you to avoid the dreaded procrastination.
That said, it also helps to be accountable to outside forces when working towards meeting deadlines. Many times this is built-in, because the deadline is set by an editor, copy chief, or anyone higher up the pay scale. But, being held accountable by someone else definitely helps with meeting deadlines… right?
So, on to strategy three…
3) Share with Your Team.
Accountability works better when others are involved. I mean, most people I know, if they’re being honest, are not the best at holding themselves to task…
But, most people I know don’t like to look like flakes in front of people they care about or admire.
When possible, tell other people about your deadline. And not just the big one at the end, but the significant milestones along the way.
In your personal life, you could tell your spouse, partner, roommate, or close friend. Ask them to check in with you periodically on how your project is going. Your desire to be able to answer them in a way that makes you look good will keep you motivated and on task.
Professionally, share the milestones you’ve set with your client. And then, send them a weekly email updating them on your progress. Believe me, after you’ve sent one “nothing to report” message, you’ll get back on track real fast.
What about mastermind or accountability groups, you ask? I love them. They’re great for being held accountable.
A huge aspect of accountability is to build in rewards and detriments…
If you hit a milestone, have a specific celebration in mind. It could be small – such as taking in a movie in the afternoon. Or, when you complete a major project, it might be a bit bigger. A few of my bigger rewards have been a new laptop and a weekend staycation at a local resort.
Conversely, an example of a personal accountability stick – a detriment – I’ve set for not achieving a goal is donating $200 or $1,000 to a local charity. If you really want to make this effective, donate to a political candidate… you will never stop getting mail.
However, the fact remains… the most important accountability and reward tool for meeting deadlines is…
If you don’t set and take meeting deadlines seriously (whether they’re your own or ones set by an editor, copy chief, or other supervisor), then no amount of internal or external accountability – or planning – will matter.
To make that happen, you have to…
4) Do the Work.
This may seem a little obvious, but as world-class procrastinators will attest, this is sometimes the hardest part.
You can draw out and set an ideal deadline, design a perfect written plan to meet the deadline, get the right resources and support… but, if you don’t start the work, you’re certain not to meet the deadline.
Don’t wait for tomorrow or next week, or even later today before you start – START NOW.
Even though you’re not going to finish today (most likely).
By “today,” I mean whatever day you’re given the project. You’ve set the deadline, designed your plan to achieve it, and set up your accountability network…
So, strike while the iron is hot… dig in to the actual doing of the project. Aim to complete at least your first small task. Your brain is tuned in to your project and its deadline… so it’s the perfect time.
Doing the work also means avoiding distractions during time you set aside to work on the project.
Distractions happen. The competition for your time and attention is fierce and comes from many sources. You have to take a hard stance against them and maintain focus on the task at hand.
Close your browser to avoid unnecessary internet surfing. Close your office door to maintain quiet, uninterrupted working time. Set your phone to “Do Not Disturb,” so you aren’t tempted to answer texts from friends or respond to notifications.
It’s that simple – but, putting it into action might not be. Focus takes practice, and the best time to start developing your ability to focus is now.
You might think these four strategies are enough for meeting deadlines, but I’ve found two other strategies are also helpful…
5) Don’t Add Extra Work to the Deadline.
Projects and requirements change, particularly in the writing and copywriting world.
However, avoid adding work to an already assigned and defined project, especially if a negotiated deadline has been set. If your client needs you to do extra work, then you’ll need to adjust the deadline.
I always make it clear with clients, editors, copy chiefs, or anyone I’m under a deadline with: If the project requirements change – particularly expand – and those changes must be incorporated into the current project and its deadline… the deadline will require adjustment to account for additional work.
And, one final bonus strategy…
6) Don’t Be Afraid to Ship in “Beta.”
This strategy comes from the world of software development. Software is built and tested internally with the development team, who try to ferret out as many bugs as possible. They do this during the “alpha” phase.
In copywriting, I liken this to a first complete draft of a piece. You’ve worked through the entire blog post, editorial article, e-newsletter, email series, landing page, video sales letter, or long-form sales letter. You’ve outlined the entire piece, you have all your research compiled and organized, and you have a rough draft of all the necessary pieces laid out in the correct order.
Then “beta” is the next phase.
In the software development world, this means the software is complete and has all of the features. This is the version that companies often use in public demonstrations, and sometimes it’s released to a limited group for real-world testing. It’s complete, but it likely has some bugs.
In copywriting, it means you’ve ensured all the major components of the particular piece of copy or content are present, you’ve given a once over with CUBA, and made sure the style and voice are correct. It has survived your internal process of beating it up.
Your next step is to get some additional input. And, it doesn’t have to be “perfect” to take this step. That need for perfection is where so many writers get hung up.
I’m not sure who originally said it, but I most recently heard it from Michael Hyatt, when he was talking about shipping in beta: “Done is better than perfect.”
And, getting it out the door by the deadline is better than perfect.
If you don’t get a project out the door on time, you risk missing out on opportunities. And, the most important opportunity you risk missing is the opportunity to make the copy better.
Let me explain…
You can do personal reviews and tweaks forever and still never get it just right. Why? Because we need editor feedback to make it better.
We need people who aren’t us, who don’t have our set of assumptions, who don’t have our worldview, who don’t have our bias toward the copy or content to actually review it and give us a sense of what’s working and what could be stronger.
Remember, as a copywriter or content developer, you’re responsible for results. You can’t be afraid to put yourself on the hook. You can deliver.
Embrace your deadlines; they are not the enemy.
They’re really the best friend a writer can have. Deadlines create a sense of urgency; they make sure we finish what we start and that we move forward and continue to grow… and ultimately, that’s how you build the life you want… The Writer’s Life!