There are a lot of deadlines in life: job applications, insurance claims, license renewals, work projects, not to mention the fact the kids are always running dangerously low on clean underwear.
But sometimes, when I’m stuck on a task, a deadline is just what I need.
I’m a big fan of Gretchen Rubin’s work and have many Obliger tendencies. This means I, typically, respond to external expectations – (when my husband asks me to call the mechanic, I do it; those cookies I agreed to provide for the bake sale will be there on time) – but I tend to have a hard time responding to my own, inner expectations.
During the initial lockdown in spring 2020, I was having a hard time completing a nebulous personal project. For over a decade I’ve been sending monthly update e-mails to family and friends. In addition, I also recorded regular summaries on my children’s development for their first 24 months. Reading about those details now – comments about their sleep patterns, transition to solid food, and first words and steps – nearly crushes me with nostalgia (tempered by my relief they are now old enough to wipe their own noses, bathe themselves, and sleep through the night).
I don’t journal regularly and these updates were a treasure trove of family memories. There were dozens of files, not to mention pages and pages of archived emails. It was a daunting task to collate information from various sources (I’d switched primary e-mail accounts during this time), pull together old files, and then organize and format hundreds of pages. I wanted to do it because I valued the end result, but each step felt daunting.
I knew to aim for progress, not completion, but somehow I just didn’t have the enthusiasm to get this across the finish line. On a whim, I texted a friend. I described the task ahead of me and promised her a crisp $20 bill if I failed to complete the project in less than a month. The stakes were pretty low, but now I had someone holding me accountable and maybe, just maybe, silently rooting for my failure. Twenty bucks is twenty bucks.
My book was complete and ordered within three days of sending that text and on my doorstep in under a week.
Deadlines can be anxiety-producing and sometimes we need to take a step back and cut ourselves some slack (or quit)? But other times, an arbitrary deadline might be just the motivation needed to complete that nagging task.