Dread, with a Deadline
Conquering the Larger-than-Life Project
I began this week with one of those moments of dread. You know the ones—a big, hairy project on the to-do list that you’ve stared at for weeks and now have to deal with somehow. The deadline says so, and deadlines rule.
Monumental tasks have the ability to crush you with tons of weight before you even try to lift them. This writing project was one of those, and it felt virtually impossible to begin pushing that boulder uphill.
I’m not quite sure why. In proper perspective, it wasn’t that big a deal. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? We don’t have proper perspective on these things. They look enormous even when they aren’t.
Compounding the problem for me—and I’m sure most writers can relate to this—was that sense that someone had stuck a spatula in my head and mixed things up a bit. There are days like that, you know, or sometimes even seasons. You put words on the page, but they aren’t the right words. And no matter how hard you try to craft a compelling sentence, no matter how much it hangs right in front of you or seems to be on the tip of your fingertips, it just doesn’t come.
I think this is the writing equivalent of a basketball player who leads the league in shooting but inexplicably has a game in which he clanks every shot off the rim. It makes no sense. It just happens—in sports and in writing, both of which require a strong sense of rhythm and flow.
Anyway, I had planned to write several thousand words on Monday, and by mid-afternoon, I’d written only a short paragraph that I didn’t like very much. As I often say, ramping up into a project is the hardest part. And this week, it was harder than usual.
I talk to myself in times like this. Sometimes these arguments/lectures/prompts can help:
- It has to be done. There’s no way around it. Putting it off won’t make it easier. It might as well be now. Even putting bad words on the page is progress, so maybe if I just start, I can get some rhythm and eventually being writing something decent.
- That thing I’d rather be doing? I can actually do it when I finish this. One depends on the other. So the path to doing what I really want to do begins with doing the thing I don’t want to do. It’s not permanent; it’s the gateway to the better thing. (Tying the two together like this allows you to begin the project with a vision of something else in your head without feeling guilty about it being a distraction. It’s not a distraction. It’s a motivator.)
- This project probably isn’t as big and hairy as I’m making it out to be. It only seems like it will be exhausting. Once I’m into it, I’ll probably get on a roll and be glad I did. That has happened many, many times before. This will probably be just like that.
- Sometimes it really does help to simmer and stew a little bit first. No, that’s not procrastinating. I don’t mean putting it on the back burner to distract myself with something else. I mean forcing myself to think about the topic, to mull it over, to roll different intros around in my head to sense what feels right and what doesn’t. Motivation comes when I feel like I have a plan. Simmering for a while helps me develop one.
- Break it into small sections. The thought of writing a chapter feels painful. But I can write a lead. Maybe even a paragraph. Then once I’ve cleared that hurdle, I can go through the same thought process. Another paragraph? I can do that. Before I know it, I may be on a bit of a roll. And then it doesn’t seem so big after all.
Of course, none of these self-directed mini-sermons is an unfailing magic key to productivity. But when the deadline isn’t flexible, they’re all I’ve got. And they really can jumpstart a project, make it feel lighter than it did before, provide some inroads into it, and unscramble the thoughts in my head.
It’s beautiful when the writing flows, but we all experience times when it doesn’t. Use these speeches on yourself, and you’ll eventually accomplish your goals—with the flow or against it.