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Making Fake Deadlines Real: Completing Projects with Self-Assigned Deadlines

Making Fake Deadlines Real: Completing Projects with Self-Assigned Deadlines
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    As a freelance writer, nothing annoys me more than a client who tells me, “Oh, just get it to me whenever you can.” I hate it! I need deadlines in order to schedule and prioritize my work. I do what I can to get clients to nail down a deadline, but sometimes that just doesn’t happen. That’s when I have to go to Plan B: the ‘fake’ deadline.

    Fake is a bit of a misnomer — I should really refer to it as a self-assigned deadline. There is a reason that I call such deadlines fakes, though: there doesn’t really seem to be any sort of consequence for not completing the project on time, or even ever. I hear “whenever” from a client and I translate it to “never.” I’ve even worked it out logically. If a client doesn’t feel a project is important enough to have a deadline, it must not be important to her. I know I’m far more likely to procrastinate on a project that doesn’t feel important, and even if I get to it, I’ll dilly-dally on it. I won’t put out my full effort to getting it done and off my to-do list like I would for a time-sensitive project.

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    Following Through on Fake Deadlines

    My reasoning aside, though, I don’t get paid for projects that don’t get done. I have to make sure that I finish projects, even those without deadlines, so that I can move on to other work and other paychecks. I have to make those self-assigned deadlines feel real.

    Give the Client a Deadline: I’ve found that I can make a deadline real by getting a client’s approval for it. I may do nothing more than send out an email saying that I’ll have the project done by Friday — or any other specific date — but it’s enough to create an expectation in both the client and myself that I’ll be done by that deadline. Even a little bit of outside expectation can be enough to get me out of a procrastinating mindset. I’ve created such expectations with individuals other than my client, as well (there could be any number of reasons you wouldn’t want to pin down a specific date for your client). I find just telling a friend that I’ll be working on a given project today can get me moving. There’s still less of a consequence in not completing a task I told a friend about than a deadline I mentioned to a client.

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    Think About the Money: I’m afraid I’m quite the money-grubbing capitalist. One of my best motivators is thinking about where a particular paycheck is going to go. For instance, I may have an open-ended project that, if I just get it done before the end of the week, I should get the money in time to pay my rent. While money may not be the only reason that I work on a project, it is definitely an important aspect.

    Focus on the Client: I often do projects where I am the client — I’m the person assigning the deadlines, which can be a real problem for ensuring that the project gets done. Writing for my personal blog is a great example. It can be hard for me to convince myself to devote money to a project that isn’t going to immediately contribute to paying my bills and could be done at any time. I have to separate myself from the project and think of someone else as my client. For my blog, my readers might be my clients: they expect posts every so often and anything I can do to make my blog more reader-friendly is going to make my clients/readers happier.

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    Don’t Make It A Rainy Day Project: I think most of us have lists of things we’ll get to when we don’t have anything better to do — maybe on a rainy day. Sometimes projects with no due date in sight wind up on that list, pushed off until we have time for it. Well, I always have something better to do: I can get a head start on upcoming projects, bake cookies or read that book I’ve been dying to find time to read. I can’t allow projects that I actually intend to do to wind up on that list.

    Create Fake Rewards: I’ve found that rewarding myself for getting a job done is especially effective for short-term deadlines. For instance, I’ll tell myself that if I meet one of my ‘fake’ deadlines by the end of the day, I’ll make one of my favorite dinners. I try to scale the reward to the size of the project — I wouldn’t want to make my reward buying something more expensive than the payout for the project. But even something little can motivate me to just finish the project. I’ve heard of people making fake penalties for not following through on a particular assignment, but, personally, I’ve just never been able to follow through on that sort of punishment — it feels far more fake than my little rewards.

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    Do It Now: If I have a small project that I can easily get done in the time I have left today, I’ll do it. One of my biggest problems with self-assigned deadlines is that they will get pushed back in favor of more immediate due dates. So, if I find myself with time, I like to knock out work while I’m thinking about it. My only concern is letting clients think that I will always turn around a project that quickly.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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