I think a lot about deadlines, and how they force us to prioritize how we structure our time.
For example, after I moved into my new place the good folks over at Comcast saw fit to send me a bill with a July 27th due date:
There was nothing wrong with this per se, aside from Comcast sending it a week after the July 2nd billing date so neatly printed in the corner, which means that by the time the bill got to me and I finally opened it, I had about a week and a half left before it was due. Simple, right?
My usual bill-paying routine involves paying all my monthly bills in one swoop when I calculate my budget, though the Comcast bill unfortunately arrived after I’d already handled this for the month. The bill also arrived on a week when I happened to be really, really, REALLY busy, meaning that the Comcast bill sat in my To-Do pile until about July 23rd, at which point I was still really, really, REALLY busy and would be for the next several days.
Sunday the 23rd also just happened to be a day when I’d set aside the afternoon to send out some queries for my Japan novel. I had a list of places I wanted to send it and hadn’t checked off as many of them as I would have liked, so that Sunday seemed like the perfect time to get caught up.
Except that I didn’t send out any novel queries right away. I set up my Comcast account and paid the bill first, then I started sending out novel queries, which I then had less time for because I’d gotten a late start.
I tell this story not to complain about how lame Comcast is (there’s plenty of people doing that already), but to illustrate how even I, Ian, was able to get distracted by something so seemingly insignificant as an internet bill.
In thinking about it afterward, I realized that I paid the Comcast bill first partly because I knew that crossing it off my To-Do list meant one less thing to worry about, but also because the Comcast bill had a firm deadline and sending out my queries had no deadline besides the loose one I’d set for myself.
Lesson: We Always Prioritize External Deadlines Over Personal Ones
Like I talked about in my post on goals, deadlines are something we start learning about in elementary school. If you finish your homework by the next day, you’re rewarded with a good grade. If you don’t, you’re punished with a zero.
By the time we reach high school we have tests to study for before a certain day, projects to finish by the end of the semester, and lots of boring forms to fill out and return. Aside from that whole learning part, school is really just a big exercise is handling deadlines.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since handling deadlines is a for-serious important Real-World Life Lesson, especially when it comes to adult-type stuff like applying for college, applying for jobs, buying houses, and remembering to move your car before street cleaning day. It’s also really important for the working world, whether you have a Day Job or a Meaningful Job, because work involves set responsibilities and deadlines, and we all know that people who don’t make their work deadlines get hit with annoying follow-up emails from the boss (“Hi Ian, were you ever able to finish that report I gave you? Thanks.”).
That’s why it’s not surprising that we give these external deadlines priority, because not handling your external deadlines comes with real, unpleasant consequences: getting marked down on your American Government essay, not getting into college, paying late fees on your bills, and having to deal with those annoying follow-up emails (*shudder*).
Prioritizing Your Personal Deadlines is Hard, But Really Important
For somebody like me who’s trying to get more of my writing out into the world, sometimes I have the luxury of set deadlines to guide me through the process—basically every literary journal and most small presses require you to send your work by a certain date. For most everything else I work on, though, my only deadlines are the ones I set for myself.
Sometimes this can be really helpful, since I feel less pressure with my writing and can more clearly focus on solving the problems of a novel or other piece. Other times, though, it means that writing and submitting my work falls by the wayside when external deadlines far bigger than the Comcast bill get in the way.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a set strategy for dealing with this problem. Sometimes I set arbitrary deadlines for myself and try my hardest to stick to them, sometimes I devote more time to my work when I know things are getting tight, and sometimes I just tackle all the external deadlines first so I can get them out of the way, like I did with the Comcast bill.
One thing that’s worked really well is setting a routine: for this blog, I promised myself that I’d post a new blog piece every Monday morning and a new book review every Friday morning, and sticking to these self-imposed deadlines every week keeps me on track. Though my schedule was a lot more erratic when I first started last fall, since 2017 began I’ve been way better about keeping the Monday morning deadline, and it’s become so much a part of my weekly routine that I’ll actually prioritize it over external deadlines like that stupid Comcast bill.
Any way you handle it, though, one thing’s clear: you have to give your creative work the same (or almost the same) priority that you give to external deadlines.
This is really hard because there aren’t any teachers, parents, bosses, or Comcast collection agencies to turn up the pressure. The pressure has to come from you.
Slight Tangent: Grad School Can Help…Kind Of
As far as the writing world goes, a lot of people find that grad school helps them structure their creative lives because in grad school you have classes with more set deadlines like in high school and an advisor (i.e., boss) to answer to just like at a job. This makes the creative process easier for a lot of people because in grad school writing feels like your main focus, not your secondary hobby.
This, however, can backfire fast, as I saw it do for a lot of my fellow grad students and it did for me more than a few times. In grad school it’s really easy to get caught up in your classes, teaching assignments, conference presentations, and professional development seminars so that the actual writing slips by the wayside, since the deadlines for finishing a novel or dissertation are usually so nonexistent or far away that they don’t seem like deadlines at all—especially when you have a ten-page paper on Foucault to write and a whole stack of student essays to grade by the end of the semester.
Bottom Line: Only You Can Make Creative Work a Priority
Regardless of your situation, if you want to make your creative work go somewhere, the only person who can follow through on that decision is you.
You’ll have to deal with distractions, external forces, and Comcast bills that for some reason have to be paid three weeks after you move into your new apartment, and placing your creative work in the spotlight involves setting it high enough on your priority scale so that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.