Tag Archives: meeting deadlines

January Challenge Week 1: Did I Succeed at Finishing?

grasp c Elissa Field*

Ahhhh…..

Three o’clock came on Monday, deadline for entering grades. Project finished. I met my goal for Week 1 of the January Challenge — I finished this one thing.

I’ve heard from two others who also finished their challenge for the week, and I’ve heard from many who are using this week’s challenge to prioritize how they will get projects finished later in the month, or at other times throughout the year.

What all of the posts and emails have acknowledged — and what I observed, working toward my deadline — are the hurdles and resistance that are particular to finishing a project.

  • In the week’s kickoff post (Week 1: Finish Something), we thought about resistance or obstacles that keep us from completing projects and used strategies to identify the real obstacle, to break the resistance down in manageable steps.
  • Then, Sunday’s post (Week 1: 14 Strategies for Finishing Work) shared several concrete strategies for keeping the work moving toward “done.”

Advice is great. I really do use all those tactics, and heard from so many of you how these kinds of strategies are useful.  But you just know I didn’t glide toward perfect completion of my project following all that advice to a T, without a hitch.

Today’s post shares the insights that came to mind as I applied the advice of those earlier posts (successfully and with rough spots) toward finishing my goal. As always, do share your own experiences in the comments, whether you are actively participating in the challenge or if you stumble upon it even months down the road.

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Avoid Wheel-Spinning

Any of my regular readers might notice that Sunday’s post of “14” strategies was updated to “15” as I realized I left off one that is key (now #8 on the list): avoid wheel-spinning.

One thing that is hard for writers is that finishing work requires shifting gears from the energy of generating lots of new ideas to limiting efforts to the tasks that get the darn thing done.

“Avoid wheel-spinning” recognizes that in those goals for working hours or word counts it is easy to be busy working, yet not focused on steps that will get the job done. My goal last weekend was just to get any remaining grades entered to close out last semester. Sure, that includes tasks like filing paperwork and reflecting on how the semester went. But it was wheel-spinning for me to spend half an hour making notes to a student on a paper that won’t be revised again.

Going back to the endzone metaphor I used in Running on the Grass: imagine you are the running back, carrying a football (your project) toward the endzone. Discipline yourself to avoid running sideways or backwards, or wondering what’s happening over on the baseball fields or suddenly stopping everything to jump rope. Finishing a project means only strides that take you closer to that endzone.

What’s Worth Finishing – and What to Drop

In a few responses from readers, I heard a continued hesitation to even take a project on. They liked the idea of finishing something for this week’s challenge but… you could just hear it in their voice: they weren’t sure they even cared about their project any more. I’m thinking that is worth its own post.  Don’t you hear a list forming in your head, of good reasons for finishing something vs. when to just drop it off the list?

For today’s sake, let’s just say: sometimes you have to amputate certain parts of a goal in order to get it done. In grading, I had one class that was hard to get finished. We made it through our main units, but there was one other assignment I always have students write.  We ran short on time because of classes cancelled during hurricanes, but I was going to be stubborn and force it in — one more paper to write, one more paper to comment on and grade (when already slowed down with the holidays and a cold).  A more seasoned friend shrugged.  There were plenty of grades to accurately reflect the students’ learning; nothing was going to be done with that “one more paper.”  There was no reason not to drop it.

Throughout the weekend, making my deadline involved knowing when to edit out steps. File student papers later, get them graded now. Trade information with a peer by email, rather than a lengthy meeting (when our friendship gets us chatting).  We all know this strategy from our daily lives: make sure the kids learn important values, but don’t worry if you mastered scrapbooking.

Pick your battles. Know what matters and what to drop.

Declaring it Done

Hand-in-hand with that, finishing a project requires knowing when to declare it done.

Please people. Last summer my goal was to polish the third revision of a novel whose characters and storyline were thoroughly written in order to query agents by September 1. What did I do to myself instead? Discovered a whole new thread for a main character’s motivation. Augh.  I mean, yes, okay, it might be a better book for it.  But do I not realize that this second-guessing kind of revision (requiring a thorough rewrite) is what kept me from ever querying the last one? Every time it was just about to finish its writing-marathon, my little novel would say, “You know, I think I’d like to go back and re-run mile 15 differently.”

In perfect irony, that novel draft I never queried has a scene where the main character is an artist, working on finishing a painting in her studio. Watching her, the artist’s daughter asks, How do you know when a painting is done? Roughly quoted, the mother answers, You never really do — just, at a certain point, it starts to stand on its own. At a certain point, you have to take your hands out of it.  If not, it would be sold, framed and on the wall in a collector’s house, and I’d still be taking it down to make one more change. 

For both of the first two points above, as I was grading I had to limit the tasks I took on. It was being a perfectionist that didn’t let me read a student paper without adding one more comment, even knowing the paper and the semester were done. And the definition of finished (grades entered in the software by the deadline) did not need that one last assignment crammed in.

It seems the key is to clearly define “done” for your project, early on in planning.  When discipline is needed, you can then edit out unnecessary tasks and distractions by evaluating whether or not they are needed to reach that definition of done, and hold yourself to declaring a finish line crossed when you reach it.

Build a 20% Cushion on Your Deadline

Deadlines help, as they draw the line in the sand after which there is no more tinkering to be done — but deadlines need a cushion, as problems always come up.

Later this week I’ll introduce my Begin Something challenge: I have a literary magazine that has to be printed and in student’s hands by the last day of school. Which means the printer has to have it no later than May 10th. Which means he really needs it by May 1st. Which means I need to tell myself I have to deliver it to him by a week before that, or even by April 15th. There are holidays and conflicts with other spring projects that month, which means my deadline for having it finished is really April 1st. (Heh. Did you hear my shriek at the thought of how soon that is?)

Something always comes up. A glitch. Weather. Someone you are waiting on who delivers something late. Someone goes on vacation or is out for surgery. A brilliant idea for a last minute change. Run out of paper or ink or…  And we, ourselves, are imperfect. Procrastinate. Lose confidence. Have a glitch in our software or lose a key piece or catch a cold.

My grades weren’t due to be posted until 3pm Monday. Monday was a teacher workday for entering the grades. Awesome: that gave me 5 hours to grade, right? Who could have expected that a tragedy at a school in Connecticut would spur a Monday morning safety review meeting? Still, 2 hour meeting leaves me 3 hours, right? Except the training meeting evolved into the local SWAT team (you planned for this, right? we all plan for sudden SWAT developments?) performing evacuation training on-site until past lunch. Then a follow up meeting. Then a friend with a question. Arrival and assembly of new desks, redesigning my class layout.  Planning for new classes.

I learned after my first year teaching: never expect to grade on a planning day. Have it done the night before. In a perfect world, if I were as smart as posting-advice-lists would imply, I would have set my deadline 2 weeks back, at the end of the semester– anticipating that a Christmas cold would leave me worthless for grading during my weeks off. We are imperfect — subject to colds and procrastination and wanting to run see a movie with a friend and maybe struggling through finishing certain steps of a project.

We have to build a cushion to accommodate that imperfection and expecting — it never fails — something will always come up.

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That Said, I Met My Goal — How Are You Doing?

write start badgeI have some stray housekeeping (returning papers, filing, etc.) that keeps my finish something goal from being completely cleared off my desk but, overall, I met my goal.

How are you doing with yours?

Most readers and friends I have talked to are working on their Week 1 project throughout the month (or even the year) — and really, none of us want to finish just one thing. As soon as I have time, I’ll work in finishing my grad school apps and getting stories out, not to mention those novel revisions. So we’ll continue to trade insight on what works.

Do share your thoughts in the comments.  What are you working on finishing?  Do any of these strategies ring true for you?  Or are there others that help you finish your projects?

Have any of you decided to completely drop a project from your to-do list?

If you have blogged about this challenge, please share a link to my original post (so people can read the challenge) and post a link to your blog here in the comments so we can read what you are up to!

Next up will be kick-off of Week 2: Start Something. Think about a project you need to get started — mine will be the lit mag.

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January Challenge: 15 Strategies for Finishing Work

write start badgeOn Thursday, I posted the kick-off for the January Challenge Week 1: Finish Something.

If you’ve missed prior posts: the January Challenge: Finish, Start, Improve, Plan attacks our 2013 goals and resolutions by focusing one week at a time.  Week 1 (that’s now) finish one thingWeek 2 start something, Week 3 improve something and Week 4 evaluate and plan where to go next.  Participate at any time — see the end of this post on how to get started.

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The goal this week is to finish one thing.  Today’s post trades notes on the successes and challenges we are encountering, as well as 14 key strategies for getting this goal done. (Thursday’s post gave strategies for breaking the project into manageable steps, getting ahold of any missing materials and otherwise addressing obstacles that keep you from getting started — head there if you need help with those first.)

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Week 1: How Are We Doing?

I shared that my “finish one thing” goal for the week is to complete grading from fall semester.  So far, I’m succeeding: I’ve completed one class, jotted notes for Monday meetings for classes that are starting, and organized the papers I’ll finish grading for the other two classes. Not docile, but tamed.

Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum — chances are we are all trying to finish this one thing while other projects compete for attention.  My challenge this week may be grading, but I still have a novel that is my priority and two little boys who’d prefer I not forget about them (“There’s your food, right next to the dog’s kibble…”), and of course all those post-holiday distractions.

In sharing your goals for the week (or the month or, in some cases, for throughout the spring — use this challenge as it works best for you, and do jump in at any time even once the week is done!), many of you have acknowledged being short on time or distracted by other priorities.  I’ve been fighting a cold and struggling with a bratty urge to enjoy my last days of vacation with my kids before classes start again. Every time I sit down to finish grading, it’s not student essays but my current novel draft that fill my thinking. (Sing it folks: should I not be thrilled to be on fire about novel writing in a days I have off from teaching? It’s hard to compete with that.)

Week 1 tackles “unfinished” projects, and so often these old to-do items have a hard time claiming attention against more fun, more glamorous, more interesting, more entrenched or more profitable siblings on the to-do list.

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15 Strategies for Taming Unfinished Projects:

The point of sharing a challenge is to trade the strategies that help us get through the rough spots.  Here are 14 tricks that work to overcome resistance, find discipline and claim time for your project — balancing to finish this one thing while moving on with other priorities in your life.

  1. Get Started. It sounds obvious, but the biggest hurdle is taking the first step. Do it, now.
  2. Draw yourself in with an easy first step. Say, “Write for 15 minutes,” or “Just sort the papers,” or “Type the handwritten scene you wrote last month.” Kick off a day of novel revisions by just running a spell-check, or printing a draft for reading. Get past blank-page reluctance by baiting yourself with something easy — often, that’s enough to get you hooked.
  3. Find something to get out of the way. Scan to see if a “big” project has something simple you can knock off right away. With my grading, half of one stack was already graded– I only had to record the grades and file the papers. Shorter stack already. With my novel draft, I could type some handwritten edits before diving into major shuffling in Scrivener. If you’re tackling a cleaning project like the garage or the playroom, find things to throw away. If it’s cleaning up after the holidays, get that tree to the curb.
  4. Use the rule of 30. Get through large projects by asking yourself to work only 30 (or 20 or 45) minutes at a time. I have 8-12 hours of grading, but asked myself to work on it in 30 minute segments, several times throughout the day.
  5. Map your project in manageable steps. For grading, I divided the papers by assignment, then took them one chunk at a time, with a pad beside me to make notes for semester-start meetings or planning. For unwieldy writing projects, create a to-do list: write a “shopping list” of details that need research or interviewing, list scenes that need to be written or revisions planned. For short story submissions, make a list of 20 magazines to submit to, write a brief cover letter, proofread your story and format it for submitting. For revising a novel draft (say, one written in NaNoWriMo), your list might be: read draft, delete bad material, highlight best text, map plot points, assess word count goals, list missing elements. Then take on one at a time.
  6. Find measurable milestones. Each step should be a mini-success. Check-marks on a list of steps can be affirming.  Take pictures of each step of laying out that garden. Or set arbitrary motivators. In grading, watching columns in the gradebook software fill with grades (and stacks move off my dining table) is visual incentive.
  7. Set daily or weekly writing goals.  All industries set quotas to know, measurably, if a goal will be reached and adjust work when it’s falling behind.  In Friday Links, I shared writer Laura Maylene Walter’s post, which celebrated the milestone of 60,009 words by December, having set herself daily word count goals which she kept as a growing motivational tally.  Writing friends have shared daily goals of 500 or 1,000 words for regular progress, or goals of 2,000 when pushing toward a deadline. Other writers use hourly goals. Writer Ann Hood sets a goal to write 2 hours per day, and starts by revising the prior day’s work. Another option is to set page or chapter goals. Software (Excel, Outlook, or Scrivener) can track your milestones and keep you motivated.
  8. Avoid “wheel-spinning.” When you are starting a project, that’s the time for spit-balling, brainstorming lots of ideas, throwing lots of them at the wall to see what sticks. But when you shift to the goal of finishing, you need to be wary of spending your daily goals (word counts or time for working) on anything that doesn’t take you closer to “done.” Build an internal radar to detect when you are working but it’s wheel-spinning — lots of energy, but not taking you closer to your goal. Respect the energy of those new ideas (jot them down for later), but redirect your work back toward steps that take you directly to your goal.
  9. Balance this project with other priorities using the rule of 30 or the rule of 5’s. The rule of 30 (above) is great for alternating between key projects. Saturday, I wrote for 30 minutes, then sorted papers for 30, then wrote/researched for 30, then graded for 30, then a break and chores, then…   A variation of this is the rule of 5’s: alternate between projects, doing 5 things at each. I got myself started this morning saying, “Just do 5 papers,” then got over a mess my sons made by saying, “Just put away 5 things…” Especially in a week when we’re combatting post-holiday distractions, this counting approach can help you stay productive in competing tasks, like writing thank-you notes or putting away decorations or facing an overflowing email box at work. (I use “do 5” to get started or during breaks, and “work for 30” to make real progress.)
  10. Work to a deadline. New writers hate deadlines; seasoned writers love them. They declare a day when the work must be done. I will finish grading, because the deadline is tomorrow. There is no more tinkering with it after that. (Bonus: clears the decks for the next priority.) In creating measurable steps, start at your deadline. Write your list backwards, assigning daily or weekly steps to get there. Divide the work by the number of days to set your daily goals. Adjust daily quotas when these goals aren’t being met.
  11. Block out time-wastes. Especially if you are trying to finish a piece of writing, distraction-free time is a gift you give yourself. Stop in and say hi to us here(!), but otherwise avoid being sucked into email, social media or the latest marathon repeat of Top Chef.
  12. Do this goal first. Borrowed from my daily writing strategy: I drop everything and write before other things take over. Combined with other timing strategies, it’s easy to claim 30 minutes (or do 5 things) toward this goal, before anything else. A variation: work on it while the coffee is brewing.
  13. But build in healthy breaks. Minds go numb without food, and many writers swear by the value of a walk or run to release creative energy. Similarly, connection with family, friends and the outside world keep you inspired — so don’t feel guilty taking time out for these.
  14. Read, or seek experts. Reading triggers inspiration. More focused than that: if you are planning a class or conducting research or rethinking your marketing plan, look for advice that can keep you from reinventing the wheel. Taking time for a twitter search or “shout out” to friends might score time-saving advice.
  15. Talk about it. Especially for a stale project, renew your interest by telling someone you want to finish it this month. Tell us here in the comments, or blog about it, post pictures of your progress, or tell a friend or your family. Get someone else on board.

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What’s Your Challenge — or Favorite Strategy?

Whether applying the January Challenge this week or not… What kinds of projects do you fight to get finished? Is it a struggle to get a novel draft to submission-ready? Are you not sure what to do next, in building your platform or writing your blog?

What unfinished projects make your yearly goals for 2013?

And what strategies have you found for getting things done? 

Please share your thoughts in the comments.  If you blog about your challenge, please share a link to this post and share link to your article so we can visit your site as well!  You can use the January Challenge badge, if you want to be festive.  (I’m sure many will stumble on this post long past this week in January, but all participation is welcome, even once the month is done.)

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Filed under January Challenge, Novel Writing, Time Management for Writers, Writing Life, Writing Mother