Ditching My Deadlines

I’ve always considered myself a writer, but I didn’t really start writing until NaNoWriMo 2010. I churned out 50,000 words before Thanksgiving, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say the experience changed my life. 

Since then, I’ve always been my most productive writing self during NaNoWriMo. I love the frenzy of it, the sense of community, and most importantly, the hard, looming deadline. When the calendar turns to December, I usually decide to take a break after my month of exhaustive work, thinking “I’ll get back to writing in the New Year.” But then January is busier than expected at work and February’s so short that I can’t really expect to get anything done. All of a sudden, I’m in a creative rut.To combat this, I’ve tried to emulate the urgency of NaNoWriMo in the off-season. In May, I’ll edit my entire manuscript, I tell myself. In August, I’ll write 30,000 words. It should be easy, right? After all, I’ve written 50,000 words almost every November for the past decade. 

Spoiler alert: It’s not that easy. 

Every time I set one of these ambitious goals, I stumble. And it’s not just that I fail to reach my goal—I also have a really hard time picking myself back up again. My failed endeavor in May will turn into an unproductive April. I get so frustrated with myself for my lack of progress, and the longer I wallow in it the more insurmountable everything feels and ohmygod I’m never going to finish a manuscript. 

Then November rolls around, I tap out 50,000 more words, and I feel on top of the world again. 

It’s taken me a long time to realize that treating every month like it’s NaNoWriMo is actually hurting my productivity more than it’s helping. I didn’t fully realize it until this month. I’d told myself I was going to put my nose to the grindstone and get this book edited in February, but from the beginning, it didn’t go well. 

Everything finally clicked when I was listening to a podcast on—of all things—nutrition. The host explained that people who get really into fad diets lose weight at the beginning, but once they fall off the wagon they end up gaining even more than their original weight. People who don’t diet at all don’t feel the high of losing weight, but they have a much easier time maintaining their current weight. 

By setting outrageous goals with borderline-impossible deadlines, I was creating a fad writing-diet for myself and setting myself up for failure. 

So I threw everything about my current writing and editing strategy out the window. No more big goals. No more deadlines. And hopefully, no more dramatically yo-yoing productivity. 

Instead, I’m completing things as they come. Right now, I’m working through reading my manuscript and taking notes on potential changes. When I finish, I’ll think about what I should accomplish next. Without the big-picture deadline that screams, “You need to have a polished copy of this book by the end of March,” the actual task of editing feels way more approachable. 

I’m only in the first couple weeks of this new approach, but I think it’s yielded positive results. I didn’t work on any editing this weekend. Under my old system, I would have felt like I had to make up all that work on Monday to reach my deadline, gotten overwhelmed, watched TV, then felt bad about it. But this Monday, even after a weekend where I didn’t accomplish any editing, it was pretty easy to open my notebook and get stuff done. 

Ultimately, I hope taking away self-imposed deadlines will help relieve some of the guilt-fueled stress that has invaded my writing life. I’ll have the freedom to work at my own pace, and someday, eventually, I will finish editing this novel. ​

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