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On Deadline: A Freelancer’s Guide to Turn Everything in on Time

You unloaded your dishwasher, organized your spice cabinet and sorted through the mail on your dining room table. You could easily find 20 more house projects but admit it, you’re just procrastinating.

Deadlines, it seems, don’t get any easier as an adult than they were with math homework when you were in fifth grade. You may have been forgiven for that one late assignment in middle school, but deadlines are even more crucial to your work ethic and reputation now.

Here are a few ways to make the deadline, every time:

1. Negotiate or set your own deadline.

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Work backward from when the client needs the work. Build in the time you need and be realistic. Sometimes client timelines are nothing short of ridiculous. Be accommodating but also stand up for yourself. If it’s impossible, say so. If you’re bending over backward to complete something within 24 hours, ask for a higher pay rate.

If you’re pitching your own stories or articles, pitch deadlines along with them. This way you can space them out according to your schedule. Personally, I know I don’t get a whole lot done on Fridays, so I try to make sure I’ve created deadlines that accommodate the four other productive weekdays.

2. Build in time for the unpredictable.

Your computer crashes. You spill coffee all over your handwritten draft. Your mom calls you from urgent care. You end up spending a whole day at the dealership even though it was only supposed to take an hour! Sh*t happens, so plan on it. Don’t work on an article the day before it’s due; instead opt for a two- or three-day buffer so if something gets in your way, you can rearrange, reset and still get it in on time.

3. Treat the time before your write like rehearsal.

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Roy Peter Clark, in his book Writing Tools, says procrastination isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as you’re using the time to process your piece. Maybe you have a long drive and you keep the radio off so you can think through your essay. Maybe vacuuming the house helps you to clear your head and think critically about how you will organize your article. Reframe the time before you write as rehearsal rather than procrastination. This way, when you sit down to bang out the piece on your keyboard, you’ve already thought it through.

4. Set weekly goals.

The perk of working for yourself is the autonomy. When you start setting daily goals, it can get to feel a little like a dictatorship. Plan your schedule based on the week, not on the day. This allows you to have “superhero productive days” AND “it’s 3, can i be done yet?” days. Both of which happen and both of which are extremely human.

5. Schedule productivity sessions.

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Find your best time:  You know your process better than anyone else. I tend to dilly-dally in the morning but I can sit down and be a face-to-the-screen writing machine from 2 to 5 in the afternoon. I use these hours to crank out my most important stuff. That’s not to say I only work three hours a day, but I make the most of those three hours I know I’m on.

Close the tabs: Seriously… between email, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, the constant stream of news and Slack alerts, we spend most the day switching back and forth between tabs. Communication as a freelancer is critical but shut it down for your most productive hours. Lena Katz, writer for ClearVoice’s blog, suggests using a smartwatch to filter urgent communication.

Establish a method: Whether you’re a fan of the Pomodoro method (25 minutes of focus with a short five minute break) or you like to break your writing sessions up into larger chunks of time, hold yourself accountable to those time blocks.

6. If you need to, just ask politely.

Making the deadline every time is hopeful. This doesn’t mean you should miss them willy-nilly, but your editor is (probably) a human too and understands that life happens and sometimes you can’t do it all. As long as you say please and you’re not putting them in a huge lurch, they’re usually not angry about having to move deadlines.

Editors are constantly juggling content in and content out. And though that editor-writer relationship is important, you’re one of many that they’re trying to corral. Just give them the information, make sure you’re not putting them in a bad place by having to extend the deadline, and say thank you.

Chels Knorr

About Chels

Chels Knorr lives in Phoenix, Arizona. To make money, she edits. To spend money, she travels. Thanks to SPF 50, she spends a lot of time outdoors. She takes her beer dark, her essays short, and her lunch before 11. She wants to spend her life telling (mostly) true stories.

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