7 tips for staying motivated by self-created deadlines

The other day I commented about how “It’s so tricky to be your own deadline-maker” on my progress page on my Writer’s Circle site.  One of my lovely group members wrote back and said, “If you have some tips for how to be more motivated by self-set deadlines, I would love to try them.”

So like last week, I’m continuing my theme of answering questions that have come up in my Writer’s Circle that I felt would be useful for everyone to think about. (And before your eyes glaze over if you’re not a writer, don’t worry, you can use these techniques too.)

And here they are:

7 tips for staying motivated by self-created deadlines

As you read through these, see if you notice how I use external forces to keep the internal deadlines moving ahead.

1. Use Jedi mind tricks.

If at all possible, find a reason to believe in the significance, importance, and the power of the deadline. If you create a deadline, but you internally decide that it’s flexible or not important, you won’t stay motivated by it. So find a reason that makes your deadline compelling.

For instance, my current compelling deadline for the ebook project I’m working on is the result of mapping out my launch calendar for 2013 with my business consultant, and it’s pretty clear that unless I stay more or less on track with it, there will be a rather significant snowball effect of Other Things Not Working, which will have a negative ripple effect throughout the entire year.

Of course we built some wiggle room and flexibility into the schedule, but knowing that if I don’t meet my “ship date” for my ebook project, I’m only going to create stress and discomfort for myself. It’s highly motivating to keep me on track. (See also #2, taking care of your tomorrow self, below.)

Similarly, even if you don’t have an editor, agent, producer, audience, or manager (yet) clamoring for your latest project, you can find deadlines for it to help you stay inspired all the way to completion, like signing up for a contest and aiming to get your project submitted by their deadline.

In my case, I know the next ProSeries Producer’s Meeting is coming up this summer, so I have a deadline for finishing my script naturally built into my 2013 plan.

We can call these “self-created” deadlines, because we choose them ourselves — we make them extrinsic deadlines to help us stay motivated internally.

2. Take care of your tomorrow self too.

I have learned — finally, it’s been hard — to take care of my “tomorrow self” as well as my “today self.” In other words, when you’re tempted to slack off on your deadline, take the long view, and have compassion for the future self who’s about to bear the brunt of today’s workload.

When I’m only looking at things from the vantage point of my today self, even though I’d love to THINK that since there’s no big deadline looming on the immediate horizon I can take the day to get caught up on small tasks and admin, when I remember to think of my tomorrow self, I know SHE’LL be the one to pay the price for that kind of thinking.

Pacing myself is good for all the versions of me — it keeps me happy now, today, tomorrow, and beyond.

3. If you can’t find a reason for the deadline, invent one.

Alternatively, if you can’t find any more natural means of making a deadline motivating, create one. My favorite tool here is something we call “social accountability,” and it has to do with promising at least one other human being that you’ll be delivering said project on a specific date, ideally at a specific time.

For instance, you can agree to exchange projects for feedback or notes with a fellow writer on a certain date, or invest in a mentoring relationship where your mentor is waiting to review your work with you. I like to schedule appointments with my mentor in advance of having my next 15 pages written — it’s terrifically motivating to get me to complete them.

I also like to let my audience know when they can expect things. For instance, when you sign up for my mailing list, you’ll receive a welcome message letting you know that you can expect to receive my weekly blog post in an ezine format every Wednesday. To strengthen that deadline for myself, I’ve even set up my mailing list system (Aweber*) to automatically broadcast my blog post at 6 p.m. Eastern Time, which means that unless I have it done before then, it won’t go out on time, which means extra work for me.

An accountability party is another powerful way to create a motivating deadline. I picked up this idea from Barbara Sher’s books. The idea is to host a party — you pick the deadline — where you’ll be celebrating the completion of your project with your friends and family.

4. If you don’t have a deadline, focus on taking consistent action.

Now, all this said, one of the interesting aspects of the Writer’s Circle is that it can help you stay motivated and taking action even when you don’t have a deadline. Writing projects are long-term commitments, and staying motivated with them can be tricky. But if you focus on taking small, consistent, daily action, as we recommend to our Writer’s Circle participants, you WILL eventually reach the end of your project. You actually DON’T HAVE TO HAVE a deadline to get yourself into action.

Personally, I like to use all of the methods I’ve described here in combination. I set myself up for the regular daily action, combined with self-selected externally motivated deadlines and invented interim deadlines. The way I figure it is this: The more the better. I use every trick in the book to keep myself going. And it works.

5. Reverse engineer your project and get super specific about the details.

Once you’ve gotten clear on your deadline, start dividing up your project into manageable chunks, whether it’s chapters, word counts, or time periods. You will likely be able to identify a natural increment you can work with. Then map that out over the time period you have allotted for your project.

For instance, with my ebook project, I have three ebooks that I’m aiming to write approximately 15,000 words for each, for a total of 45,000 words. This means that I can look at the time frame I have, divide it up into reasonable increments, let’s say 1125 words per day, 5 days per week, for 8 weeks. (And also, by telling you about it, I’m creating social accountability for myself. See what I did there?)

What’s motivating about this is seeing exactly what it will take to make my goal. That’s a fair bit of work, right? And if I don’t pace myself, I’ll end up paying for it in a big binge and burnout. Not fun, not pretty. And certainly motivating to avoid, albeit in a somewhat “I don’t want that” kind of way.

6. Set up time to actually fulfill the project.

Once you’ve reverse-engineered your project, then create time in your calendar for fulfillment. You can’t “ship” the thing until you’ve created it, right? So get out your calendar and carve out time, ideally first BEFORE you do all other stuff that normally eats up your day — I know you know what I’m talking about, but just in case: email, Facebook, Twitter, games, futzing around, etc — and be realistic about what you can actually accomplish.

I can write 1000 to 2000 words in an hour, depending on the topic, so I know I’ll want to have at least 5 hours per week carved out to meet my 1125 word deadline, working at a fairly brisk pace. Keeping in mind the big picture helps me get serious about keeping my head down and getting to work when that window of time rolls around on my calendar.

7. Do the work.

Once you’ve got the time on your calendar, be prepared for the resistance to show up. It’ll come in all forms — your mom calling just when you’re supposed to start writing, or an “urgent” email popping into your inbox, or the dirty dishes in the sink suddenly becoming alluring. Recognize that long term projects, even with highly motivating deadlines, are darn difficult beasts to face. There’s always something more we’d rather be doing.

Something that helps me tremendously with this is the Writer’s Circle. As we’re growing, we’re adding more and more group writing sprints, where we come online and write collectively for an hour together. I’ve learned to schedule my project writing time with the group sprints, so not only do I have it on my calendar, I also have accountability to actually show up and do the work.

It’s so motivating and helps keep me focused when I would otherwise be tempted to postpone my writing sessions.

Yep, even me.

So be ready, with every trick at your disposal, to fend off the voices that tell you that other things are more important. They’re not. Remind yourself of your big picture deadline, why you’ve designed it that way, and do the work.

Your turn

What works for you? You know I love to hear from you.

Experiment for yourself

Join the Writer's CircleIf you’re a writer looking for community and support on your writing journey, join our next session of the Writer’s Circle. It’s like a giant sandbox where you get to experiment with your writing habit, see what works, see what doesn’t, and have fun playing alongside other writers committed to showing up and doing the work. Find out more and register here: http://JustDoTheWriting.com








  1. I love the idea of being kind to your future self. I’m in the process of forgiving my past self for being too naive to see one huge project in particular would never pay off. It’s definitely made me more cautious about what to do next. I choose to focus on looking forward instead of back. And blogs like this one are helpful in recreating a life map. Thank you.

    • I’ve had a similar thought about projects now having a much better understanding of the investment they require. Vetting them up front is a great learning for me too. I’m glad my blog is supporting you in creating that new life map. Thanks for commenting.

  2. This post is a very good one for every writer to read, in my opinion. I especially like the idea of breaking up a huge project into chunks. We do this at work (it’s part of our Agile work environment, taking a huge initiative and breaking it into different projects and then further breaking it into smaller tasks). I just can’t believe I didn’t think of that sooner. Breaking up a novel like this could definitely help me reach my end goal more quickly (and get my novel written by the deadline I set up for myself).

    • Brittany, Thanks for that note! I just quoted your “This post is a very good one for every writer to read, in my opinion,” on Twitter, it was too good to pass up. Thank you. Isn’t it funny how we often have the tools available but don’t necessarily translate them to other areas of our lives? Seems like I’m always learning that. Keep us posted about how the novel writing goes.

  3. Jenna, I particularly like what you said about taking care of your “tomorrow self.” Thinking of it that way somehow makes today’s actions feel more doable! :)

    • Glad you liked that, Jill. It’s been a big lesson for me about fairness to all of me that has been falling more and more into place over time. I’ve talked about it ages ago, but it’s landing even more now with these long term projects I’m working on. Thanks for commenting!

  4. I LOVE that idea of an accountability party. Brilliant. I can see that really helping people, even myself, move forward. Gosh knows if I invite people to celebrate a success…I better well have it!


  1. […] that you have your goals in mind, be sure to set some deadlines—after all, life is […]

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.