Deadlines: Creative Friend or Foe?

Deadlines. Some people can’t work without them. Others find them paralysing stressful.  Either way, they have a definite effect on our ability to be creative – for good or for bad.

If you’re in the pro-deadline camp, you probably find that you need a sense of time-pressure in order to knuckle down and create. Perhaps you doodle a bit, but you never get round to doing any real design work until you’ve got clients anxiously emailing and saying “You’re still okay to get this to us tomorrow … right?” Or maybe you write at breakneck pace an hour or two before your piece needs to be emailed in to your editor.

But for other creatives, deadlines aren’t friends at all. An impending deadline brings a sense of impending doom. Your mind seizes up, you find yourself unable to sit still and concentrate, and every time you try to work, you’re worried that you’re wasting time – going in the wrong direction, chasing a stupid idea, trying something clever which isn’t going to work.

I find that I can be on both sides of the fence. Sometimes, deadlines help me knuckle down and focus. A deadline brings a project to the top of my list – and helps me keep up momentum. Often, I’ll set deadlines for myself, to help me stay on track.

Sometimes, though, a deadline ends up working against my creativity. At the moment, I have a big assignment due in as part of my MA (the equivalent of an MFA) in Creative Writing. Normally, my fiction-writing method involves just getting on with it – and scrapping whole scenes and chapters which don’t work, even writing out entire characters. With a deadline just over three weeks away, that’s not an option…

The Pressure to Get it Right

The biggest difficult with deadlines is that we know we have to get it right. If you’re going to be sending off your finished website design to a client in five days, then there’s no tweaking it afterwards. You can’t try out twenty ideas just to see what does and doesn’t work.

In a business context, your reputation could be on the line: if you deliver something which isn’t up to your usual quality, your client is unlikely to give you a great testimonial or offer glowing recommendations to all their friends.

In an academic context, your grades hang in the balance: if your final portfolio doesn’t show you at your best, you might not get the result which you deserve – which could have a knock-on effect on your career.

And even for work which is purely personal – a gift for a friend, say – there’s still a lot at stake. Your self-confidence, for one.

It’s very easy to let this pressure turn into panic and paralysis: because you’re scared that you’ll get it wrong, you end up doing nothing at all. And this doesn’t do much for your state of mind, or for your project.

Focusing on “Good Enough”

Instead of trying to get everything perfect, focus on what “good enough” would look like.

Perhaps your client doesn’t need an amazingly creative and clever website concept. They just want a clean, professional-looking design which will reassure their potential customers .

Maybe your friend would be delighted with a simple cushion cover, or a small canvas – what’s going to matter to her is that you made the gift and that it’ll remind her of your friendship every time she sees it.

On my MA course, I’m not aiming for a top grade. For one thing, I don’t write very “literary” fiction – I’m deliberately trying to make my prose easy to read, avoiding distracting the reader from the story and the characters. My aim is just to produce a solid, competent piece of work at a publishable standard – not the next Booker prize-winning novel.

If you’re facing a deadline right now, what’s your “good enough”?

Setting Your Own (Earlier!) Deadline

One final tip to ease deadline pressure: don’t get yourself tied to an external deadline. There’s nothing more stressful than facing last-minute panics when you know you have to get the file to the client by the end of the working day, or you have to hand in your assignment by five pm sharp.

Ever since being a student, I’ve had a habit of setting myself a deadline that’s a couple of days earlier than the “real” one. This really helps to relieve the pressure … and it also makes the work more enjoyable. I feel like I’m working to my schedule rather than someone else’s – and it’s easier to get that sense of play and spaciousness that’s so necessary for creativity.

If you’re a deadline-junkie – or if you just want to use the positive aspects of time-pressure to help your creativity, keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming guest post from Bamboo Forest, “How to Use the Pressure of the Clock to Create Massive Inspiration”. If you don’t want to miss it, grab our RSS feed or get posts by email (scroll up and look in the sidebar).

(Image from Flickr by alancleaver_2000)

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3 Responses to “ Deadlines: Creative Friend or Foe? ”

  1. If I don’t seriously set a deadline for myself, I get little done. I am a lollygagger of immense proportion. In my sense of a deadline, though it is a suggested guideline, not written in stone. That way if a do miss, I bypass the desire to kick my own ass.

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