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The Value of a Deadline

In honour of NaNoWriMo, the annual contest to write a 50,000-words novel in a month, I've been thinking about the value of arbitrary deadlines and goalposts.

It can be hard to think about time in large units. To plan massive projects or stay motivated by a goal many years in the future. So I trick myself by aiming at micro-goals: when I was running in high school I would do sets of sprints up a hill that was longer than I planned to go. When I was almost at the point where I had planned to stop, I would extend the goalpost a little: tell myself I would run as far as that light post ahead, or to that mailbox. I tricked myself into doing a bit more than I thought I could.

I use the same technique now with work I'm not keen on doing (alas, I get no runner's high from sweeping). I'll set out to do a project with a small time limit on it: 20 minutes of taking books down and dusting them, for example. Then I'll extend the goalpost, and decide to just finish this row of books.

Some people think that there's a real power in stopping where you are, but I find that discouraging. I don't like seeing jobs half-done, or stopped at odd points. For me, stopping at a sensible point not only leaves a room or job more orderly, but it gives me the feeling that I did more than I was supposed to, which is a good feeling.

So if I were to be writing a novel for NaNoWriMo, I would take the number of writing days in the month and divide the word count by them. Let's say I knew I would not be writing over Thanksgiving, so there are only 25 writing days in the month (also, it makes the math easier). That means I'd have to write a minimum of 2000 words per day. That's a doable amount for me, because I write fast and furious when I'm writing (when I freelanced I wrote at least 10,000 words a day on top of a full-time job, though those edited down to considerably fewer), but it's a heck of a lot if you've never written professionally. Heck, even if you have written professionally, 2000 good words a day is some work. So chop it up. Plan to write 1000 words, then challenge yourself to write another 200, and then another 200, and so on. See if you can't add an extra 200 while you're there: every extra word you write earlier in the month is a word you won't have to write later. Set up your goalposts, but keep moving them.

Another great use for a slam project like NaNoWriMo is a massive decluttering. It's getting near the holidays, when people entertain more, and maybe you want to get the house in shape. Why not set a goal of decluttering a square yard every day? Or map out the month with a goal for every day: tomorrow I'll sort the paperwork on the desk, Wednesday I'll clean the crisper drawer in the refrigerator. As you do each task, you can add on to it, go a little further. You'd be shocked at how much you can get done with small goals and big pushes.

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