More than 30 years ago, when I was completing my undergraduate degree, I found myself in an “open-book” final exam. I had to write three essays on three different books in three hours. And, as allowed, I had lugged into the exam a tall stack of books.
But for some strange reason—the professor’s poor communication or my own stupidity—I’d managed to pre-read only two of the books. Fortunately, I had the third one with me. But it was completely and utterly unread. I hadn’t even cracked the spine yet.
I felt a moment of panic when my mistake hit me like a punch to the solar plexus. This was a fourth-year course and the exam was worth a great deal of my grade. What the hell was I going to do?
I took a deep breath and made a plan. I would spend the first hour skimming the book I hadn’t read (it was more than 300 pages) and then I would write three essays in 40 minutes apiece. The most stressful part? Simply reading, while everyone around me was writing like a fiend. But I controlled my breathing and used lots of positive self-talk to get me through it. My final grade? 86%.
That was undoubtedly one of the worst deadlines of my life but it taught me some valuable lessons. Unfortunately, it was more than another 10 years until I translated them into writing lessons.
Here are five tips that should help you demolish your deadlines without defeat:
1) No matter how short your time, always make a plan. If I could devote five minutes of a 180-minute exam to planning, surely you can spend five minutes on a project that’s not due until next week, or even tomorrow! Planning in itself will help calm you, no matter how difficult the circumstances you face.
2) Start with the end point (the finished piece of writing) in mind and work backwards to ensure you’ve allowed for every step of the writing process. Remember: if time is tight you may be tempted to skip a step or two. DON’T! Instead, just do them faster. Be particularly careful to protect your incubation (the time before editing when you leave your writing aside without looking at it). I always try to allow for one day but if you don’t have time for that, allow at least one hour.
3) Don’t start writing until you have finished your research. You will NOT save time by writing early. In fact, this is one heck of a way to guarantee a bad case of writer’s block that can last for months or even years. Finish your research, think about your writing and THEN write. The only exception is if you are waiting for an obligatory quote (likely from a very senior person). If the quote is truly only obligatory and won’t add substance to the story then you may use _____ or XXXXX marks and fill it in later. But otherwise, always finish your research first!
4) Do a mindmap. This is the closest thing to a magic bullet for writing. I’m late producing today’s column (it’s a long story relating to various client crises) but I still did a mindmap in less than five minutes. In fact, it was the mindmap that caused me to remember my anecdote about the exam 30 years ago.
5) Employ a kitchen timer (or computer-timer) to give yourself a mini-deadline and to encourage your productivity. I am using one right now (I have 1 minute and 23 seconds left to finish this column) and, instead of finding it a burden, I find it wonderfully corrective. I write using pomodoros — 25 minute bursts of hard work (no email, no web surfing, no phone calls) followed by a five-minute break.
Deadlines needn’t demolish you. In fact, they can be bedazzlingly energizing and brain-blowingly productive.
Beep, beep, beep. There goes my timer. It’s time for me to hand in my exam!
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