The Art of the Self-Imposed Deadline

The Art of the Self-Imposed Deadline

7:32 PM Wednesday March 25, 2009
Steven DeMaio / Associate Editor at HarvardBusiness.org

For people who work for themselves, the self-imposed deadline is a
fact of life. Whether you’re starting a business, writing a
dissertation, or consulting for a dozen clients, paying attention only
to your drop-dead dates would mean never meeting them. You obviously have to set up interim goals along the way.

But the art of self-scheduling is not unique to entrepreneurs and
PhD students. It’s one that I actively — and successfully — practiced
for the two decades I spent working for other people. And it’s now
making my transition to freelance life a lot smoother. Here are the
self-scheduling techniques that worked for me really well in the office
— and that remain the hallmarks of my working style out on the professional fringes:

1. Start your day as early as possible. Even if you’re not a morning person,
there’s something intoxicating about planning to do A and B, and then
discovering you’ve done A, B, and C by noon. Seeing C in the rearview
mirror at lunch also makes D and E look a lot more inviting — and Q
not so far out of reach.

2. When it comes to small tasks, tackle similar ones back to back. That’s what gets you on a roll. The mind thrives on repetition, at least to a point. Capitalize on what makes us crave the refrains of songs
and makes "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" such a potent tale. Three, I
must tell you, is a beautiful number. Three things done by noon is
ecstasy.

3. Avoid the curse of the "final push." Scope and
sequence a project so that each part is shorter than the one that
precedes it. Feeling the work units shrink as you go gives you a
tangible sense of progress and speeds you toward the end. When you
leave the long parts for last, you’re more likely to get worn out
before you finish. Besides, if you’re "dead at the deadline," those
other projects you’re juggling will stagnate.

4. (ok, 3 isn’t always perfect) Find the poetry in the humdrum.
Almost any project has a stretch that numbs the brain. The moment you
realize you’ve slipped into the Drone Zone, look in the mirror —
literally. It’s hilarious, even if a little scary, to see the vacancy
of the running hamster in your eyes. Laugh at it, write about it, tell a friend what you saw. It might even inspire verse.
Whether or not you’re a poet, record how long it took you to morph from
human to hamster. Then sequence your next project accordingly.

Don’t wait another minute to sweat the task of imposing creative
discipline on your own workload. Wipe your brow and start now —
productivity can be poetry.

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