Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

How to Stop Fighting That Deadline

Don't resist writing deadlines; take charge and make them your own.

ticking clock deadline
Do you find the very concept of deadlines loathsome? Too much pressure, not enough time to be wildly creative. That clock always ticking. Yet some writers believe they would get more done if they had a deadline to work toward. Novelists working without a contract, say, rarely have the benefit of a pre-set deadline. So are deadlines a hindrance or a bonus?

The answer, as complicated as anything else about human behavior and motivation, comes down to whether you work better with some sort of boss. To be a productive novelist, or indeed any kind of independent creator, you typically have to be (or get to be) your own boss. You set your own goals.

Writing feels like play when you're motivated intrinsically. That is, when you're doing what you want to do, not because someone is making you do it, it feels great. When you're intensely involved in the writing process itself, with little or no immediate thought of future publication and riches (the latter a far-fetched dream in the best of economies and circumstances), you are more likely to enter flow and be your most creative.

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JUDGE YE NOT

Now, when the idea of judgment or a sense of competition are added, your desire to do something for its own goes down. Even words like "Good writing!" or something as simple as a pat on the back, are meant to tell you how good or bad you are. That is, when someone tells you how well they think you're doing, they mean to give you information about how well you're doing. Obviously, right? But such remarks and rewards, for some writers, feel like someone's trying to control them.

That's the key concept: control. The focus shifts -- the "who's in charge, who's the boss of me, who's the judge here?" -- from inside to outside. As poet Lucille Clifton once said, "If someone gives you permission, they can take it away. I give myself permission."

What happens next is that you don't feel the same urge to write for its own sake, at least in the long run. Psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, co-author (with Todd I. Lubart) of Defying the Crowd: Cultivating Creativity in a Culture of Conformity, calls it the "laxative principle of motivation": "People who always take laxatives become dependent on them-they can't push for themselves."

In his craft memoir, On Writing, Stephen King writes: "If no one says to you, 'Oh Sam (or Amy)! This is wonderful,' you are a lot less apt to slack off or to start concentrating on the wrong thing . . . being wonderful, for instance, instead of telling the goddam story." Even just thinking about getting that sort of praise can affect the way you write, and not necessarily in a good way.

INSIDE, OUTSIDE

Some writers, of course, are able to ignore deadlines when they become unrealistic (to the writer's mind). Says popular novelist Diana Gabaldon, who, as a bestselling author, has earned a certain freedom:

Let's put it this way: we have deadlines in my contracts because there's a space for them. I've never met one. They get the book when I'm finished with it. They scream and tear their hair a lot. But I have a much higher loyalty to my book than I do to any of them.

When you're writing only as a means to an end (to shut up the voice in your head, to please someone else, to meet a deadline obligation, to pay the rent, to win an award), you're likely to be less intensely absorbed by the writing itself. And that means you're less likely to enter that charmed state of timeless flow. Much research has demonstrated this (see Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School), and it's been seconded by numerous writers I've interviewed.

The good news is that outside motivators may combine with inner ones to make flow and creativity even more likely. As long as you don't feel manipulated by your deadlines, you're okay. For example, say you are harboring the thought that your editor -- whoever set your deadline -- has mainly marketing in mind rather than quality. If you feel rushed, you might either shortchange the work or you might resist meeting the deadline in an effort to hold fast to your internal ideal for it. If your deadline feels as though it would be unreachable unless you sacrificed either your sanity or the quality of the work, then you may decide to speak up.

GOOD DEADLINES

Plenty of writers find deadlines extremely helpful in keeping themselves on track. That's why I always tell beginners or anyone working without a contract or deadline to consider setting their own mini-deadlines.

Deadlines are also a way of setting standards to measure yourself against. You can sense yourself improving. Surely, sometimes you do your best, most flowing work when you're on a tight deadline, even when you know you're going to be judged.

What happens is that, by facing a deadline, your perfectionism is forced aside so that you are able to meet the goal. When you have a limited time to produce your work, you may find it focuses you, as poet Marvin Bell explained in our interview for Writing in Flow:

Do I procrastinate? Yes, I delay until something has begun, and the right energy seems available. And sometimes I wait for a deadline to come closer, knowing it will force me to stay with the writing. There are inner deadlines I can only sense (the pot simmers) and outer deadlines I can put on the calendar. Both kinds release adrenalin.

And that's why so many of us have love/hate affairs with deadlines.

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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