Four Mistakes Nearly Every Writer Makes About Deadlines

Hint: Procrastination is only part of the problem.

Posted May 11, 2018

Twentieth century British scholar C. Northcote Parkinson unwittingly created Parkinson’s Law when he explained that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” abbreviated today to “work expands to fill the time available.” Add to Parkinson’s Law the more playful but accurate Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.” The result: Most writers, unless they’re in advertising or journalism, almost never make deadlines.

Add to Parkinson’s and Hofstadter’s laws that most writing enjoys a more leisurely pace compared with the worlds of journalism, advertising, and some corporations, where writing always takes place under grindingly tight deadlines. In those worlds, writers leap onto articles and copy and submit finished material within hours, not weeks or months. Now realize that, if you fail to specify a deadline, Parkinson’s Law nearly always dictates that writers you collaborate with will work on anything but your precious project. Next, add awareness that, with Hofstadter’s Law, your team noodling away on their pieces of the project will fail to adequately anticipate the amount of time they need to complete their assigned parts.

Third, if you give anyone a deadline that sounds comfortably distant—more than 30 days ahead—that person will likely procrastinate. And, fourth, the planning fallacy—that teams finish work more rapidly than individuals—exacerbates the procrastination and hobbles most team members’ abilities to turn their work in on deadline.

But the news about collaborative writing isn’t all dismal, if we add two more laws that actually help you and your team members make writing deadlines. Consider how to work around Parkinson’s Law, where the more time you give writers to think about the document they’re working on, the more time they’ll take. Here, we we might call Douglas’ Law also applies—the more you think about writing, the more terrified you become. And, the more terrified you become, the likelier you are to procrastinate, putting off the evil hour when you finally get down to work. As a result, you’re not only working under a shortage of time, but also a clammy awareness that you’ve given yourself absolutely no margin of error to go back and rework the less-than-stellar bits of writing you’ve produced.

So consider Douglas’ Dictum, a rule I discovered while working under unforgiving deadlines in advertising, usually on jobs from which several prior teams of writers had been fired by clients. I often had only hours—where my predecessors had days to weeks—to complete projects on which I was about as far from an expert as a kindergartner is from acing the LSATs. The dictum that enabled me to retain my sanity, meet deadlines, and keep clients is simple. It's simple: Your work doesn’t need to be perfect, just good enough.

Keep that principle handy as you write to silence your inner critic, the one that makes you want to chuck out every word you write. And build deadlines around Hofstader’s Law. No matter how long you imagine writing will take, you always need more time than you planned.

References

Ariely, D. and Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological Science 13: 219-224.

Hofstadter, D. (1979). Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, New York: Basic Books.

Parkinson, C.N. (1960). Parkinson's laws. South Dakota Law Review 5: 1-14.