A Love-Hate Relationship with Client Deadlines

Do you give yourself too much time to complete projects?

Photo by Pixabay

Photo by Pixabay

I went to a very small liberal arts college. As one of the core competencies, we had to write and give presentations for every. single. course. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the value of this exercise. (Let’s be honest, I thought it was awful)

Near the end of every semester, we were all caught in the same trap.

Student #1: What are you doing tonight?

Student #2: Nothing, because I have a 10-page term paper THAT IS DUE TOMORROW.

Of course this conversation probably took place at 5 pm. So, on a good day, you might give yourself 6 or 7 hours to complete your research, type some cohesive version of that information, give it a quick edit, and get that baby printed and ready for the morning.

Now, some might call this procrastination.

But really, is it just getting things done more efficiently?

Parkinson’s Law

Fast forward to the post-school era. The same principle applies. Have you ever heard of the saying, If you want to get something done, ask a busy mom to do it? Yep, same idea. If you give a busy person with limited time a certain task, more than likely they’ll squeeze it into whatever time they have available and get it done.

Turns out that there’s actually a name to this principle. It’s called Parkinson’s Law.

The whole concept is that when you give yourself too much time to do something, you actually allow that effort to expand into the time that you’ve allotted. Conversely, if you give yourself less time to complete a task, you force yourself to complete it within a given timeframe.

In the book, The 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss discusses this concept in greater detail. He states,

“Parkinson's Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials.

If I give you a week to complete the same task, it's six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. If I give you two months, God forbid, it becomes a mental monster. The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.”

Does this ring true for you? It certainly does for me. I am definitely the kind of person who thrives on having a finite (and often fast) deadline. The looming presence of the deadline forces me to be hyper-focused on the project at hand.

For me, there is a certain mental trigger for meeting deadlines. When the clock is winding down, that bit of added pressure forces me to think in more a more calculated way. How can I get X done in the least amount of time? What is the best and most efficient way to do it?

Years of external pressures have forced me into getting things done quickly and strategically: as a college student, from the omnipresent deadlines; as a grad student, from working a second job outside of the lab; and now, as a busy mom of 2 toddlers, from trying to balance life stuff and a freelance writing business.

As a writer, I’m always dealing with deadlines and juggling multiple projects.

On the one hand, I love having a deadline because it creates an external boundary and stops me from getting lost in certain steps of the creative process (most often research). The fact that I also almost always work by project fee (rather than hourly) is another driver for completing projects more quickly. With a project fee, you reap the rewards of working more efficiently.

On the other hand, I hate having a deadline because it is an added stress. My hat is off to you if you are one of those magic unicorns who always gets things done days ahead of time while the rest of us are scrambling. I am envious.

But I have to always remind myself, the first draft of anything will probably be messy. Getting something done imperfectly will always be better than trying - and failing - to create something perfect (and punishing yourself in the process).  

The Pareto Principle

The concept of limiting time spent on projects so that they don’t swell exponentially brings us to another important concept: the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule.

In general, 80% of your outcomes will result from just 20% of your actions.

So in other words, the few and most important tasks are the ones that will get you the greatest results.

Pareto’s principle works across nearly all disciples, from economics to healthcare spending to personal habits.

Let’s look at some examples. How many apps do you have downloaded to your phone? More than likely, 80% of the time you are only regularly using about 20% of them.

Similarly, 80% of a company’s sales may come from just 20% of the customers, and 80% of normal daily conversations use just 20% of the words available in a given language. That’s the pattern.

So for a freelance writer, focusing on those few important items is likely to make the biggest difference in your overall productivity level. For instance, if you’re writing about a new subject area, you should probably focus first on the newest guidelines or key review articles to get up to speed quickly, rather than trying to piecemeal all of that information together yourself. It’s focusing on the 20% of the available information that may be used to create 80% of the finished product.

But the 80/20 rule can extend to so many other different areas of your business. There is likely a small subset of your contacts (20%) who are likely to generate 80% of your future work. Similarly, about 20% of your existing clients probably provide about 80% of your total revenue.

Closing Thoughts

I’ll leave you with some questions that you should ask yourself each time you are working on a new project:

Are you placing firm and reasonable time constraints on your projects so that you make the highest hourly rate based on your project fee?

Are you focusing on a small number of tasks/resources/ideas that will produce the greatest results in your writing/business/life?

By actually giving yourself less time than you think you need and focusing on less, and not more, tasks your productively will improve.

Stay tuned because in our third mini-series, we’ll discuss some of the non-obvious things that can make your marketing A LOT more effective, and allow you to pull away from the competition.

If you haven't done so already, be sure to grab your copy of the free guide, 5 Simple Writing Tweaks to Create Sticky Clients, by entering your info below. These are simple strategies that I use daily when I’m working on projects.

Jennifer Gregg