We’ve all got deadlines: deadlines for work, for paying bills, for using coupons and ordering things on sale. Those of us who work for ourselves making art or writing or editing or any of those jobs we’re allowed to do at home on our own while wearing our pj’s–we are especially familiar with deadlines. Sometimes other people set them for us, and sometimes we set them for ourselves, but however they’re established, they’re there, inevitable as April 15th or your mother-in-law’s birthday.
It’s how we react to deadlines that, in large part, defines our business experience. I, being just the teeniest, tiniest bit anal retentive, have never missed a deadline in the 20+ years I’ve been writing for publication. I like deadlines; they give structure to a work life that could easily be haphazard and unorganized: I work alone, at home. There’s nobody to check in and ask me how a project is going, nobody to stop by with a cup of coffee and give me a gentle nudge if they find me tilted back in my chair, staring out the window with my eyes glazed over. Without deadlines, I might be one of those people who spend hours a day playing whatever game has taken the place of Farmville, although my not knowing what game that might be is probably an indication that that wouldn’t happen. I’m not that into games, but I’m sure there are other lures that, without the structure of deadlines, might suck away my brain. eBay, for instance. The Sunday Times. Computer solitaire.
Deadlines are good for you, but you already knew that. What maybe you didn’t know, though, is how important your deadlines are for other people. You might think that nobody notices that you aren’t maybe so spectacular with meeting deadlines, that maybe you’re a tad late with most of them and require perhaps rather a lot of long-distance prodding, but let me assure you: that is not the case. If you’re A Deadline Slacker, you can be assured that people have noticed, and not only have they noticed, but they have probably spread the word. One of my editors mentioned just recently that there’s an artist she’d really like to use but that this person is notorious for not being able to meet deadlines. Did I urge her to give this person another try? Oh, no, I did not. Because I would have to work with this person, too, and working with someone who doesn’t meet deadlines is one of my All-Time Least Favorite Things Ever. And that’s sad, just as it’s sad that we all know too many people who do amazing work we’d love to be able to share with the larger community but cannot because we can’t count of them to come through for us.
Here’s the deal: while you may think that missing a deadline is a minor thing, a tiny inconvenience for your editor, it’s more than that. Way more. Not only does it mean that other people’s schedules have to be adjusted because your work is late, but there’s the added sense of unease: you say you’re sorry and can get the work in next week, but can you, really? Since you’ve now missed the deadline once, who’s to say you won’t miss it again? And then what? Because in publishing–whether it’s a book or a magazine or a blog post–deadlines are everything. Things have to show up–on the page, on the blog–when they’re scheduled, and if your work isn’t ready, then something else is going to have to take its place if you don’t want a big empty space where it was supposed to go. That means that if you’re late, your editor is left scrambling around trying to fill that space. Sometimes it means that things have to be shifted around and other things have to be moved to fill the void you’ve left. Right now I’m scrambling to create content to take the place of something that was scheduled but that has to be pushed back because of a missed deadline. It’s frustrating, of course. Sometimes things can’t be helped–there are emergencies and unforeseen events and all sorts of things that can keep you from meeting a deadline. If it happens once, no big deal. People will understand. But if it happens again? And again and again? Pretty soon people start to avoid you. They love your work and know everyone else would love to see what you’re doing, but they can’t count on you. They can’t keep moving things around and shuffling other people’s schedules because you’re not reliable. If you become too hard to work with, people avoid working with you at all.
Try to think of deadlines not as rules for those other people, those People in Suits, those boring corporate types who just don’t understand the creative soul, but as the lubricant that allows everyone’s work to move smoothly. You meet your deadlines; other people can meet theirs. You might think it’s not that big a deal, but trust me: it is. We all know who’s great to work with and who’s not so great. We have people who are so reliable we know we can call on them to help fill in a gap when we need them, and we know those who are always going to be the one leaving those gaps. So while it’s tempting to live the life of the free spirit artist/writer/creative soul, ignoring the rules and strictures of society, if you have work you want other people to see, it’s in your best interest to suck it up and meet the deadlines, however onerous that is to you. Maybe not so much fun as running carefree through a field of flowers, but much more likely to get you invited back.