Are deadlines really a matter of life or death?


This tweet stopped me cold.

The word 'deadline' originally referred to the perimeter around a prison camp beyond which a prisoner would be shot.

Perhaps it was the violence of the image associated with a word I use all the time.

Perhaps it was because I have two pieces of writing that are due this week.

Perhaps it’s because that’s how it feels, sometimes, to be a writer.

To feel like if you don’t turn something good in on time, every time, disaster will strike. Your editor will be disappointed. You won’t get the gold star of approval from your readers and peers telling you “how great that was.” People you care about will think a little less of you. You’ll wonder if you’re really that good a writer anyway.

How odd that something as straightforward and necessary as a deadline can bring up so much…crap.

I’m not usually one to worry about such things, and I’ve never really wrestled with writer’s block. But for the last couple of weeks, I’ve struggled to get the words out…they seem to be stuck in my head on an annoying autoloop. And I’m in hand-to-hand combat with some confidence demons as well.

Confession time: I’ve never had much patience for angst-filled writers. It’s sort of like before you have kids, when you don’t have patience with crying babies on planes. Can’t the parents keep that kid quiet? What’s the big deal? And THEN you have a family of your own, and you’re THAT family on the plane — the one receiving the glares — and the heat rises to your face as you experience the dual embarrassment of being THAT family and recalling your past judgement of THOSE families.

Parenting and writing. They’ll remind you to be humble time and time again.

It’s not just writing, it’s anything that requires us to put ourselves out there, isn’t it? Jobs or tasks or roles or conversations that push us to crank it up a notch. Anything that causes us to ask ourselves: can I do this? Can I pull this off?

And then we do, and it feels great. Phew. I’m okay.

But what about when we don’t? (Notice I didn’t say if, I said when.)

For me, it feels terrible. I feel like I’m not living up to my expectations. I feel like I’ve failed and let people down.

But then a friend or an editor reminds me that we’re all human, and it’s okay to take a little more time. The world hasn’t ended. The schedule may get altered, and, every now and then, missing a deadline will cause a real problem. But that problem won’t last forever.

A solution is right around the corner.

Perhaps that’s the bright side of deadlines. You come to learn that there’s no prison and there’s no “kill perimeter.” There’s just you doing your best. And, most of the time, that’s enough.

(The words of Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, kept coming back to me the entire time I was writing this.)

(Another great book for parents: The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler, whose tweet kicked off this post.)

(I’m also aware that, in some businesses and situations, deadlines really are crucial. I’m just trying to get better at discerning which deadlines are which.)

This post first appeared on my Babble Voices blog, The Accidental Expert, in 2013.

Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash