Not Getting Anything Done? Take Away the Deadline!

Written by on April 22nd, 2015 // Filed under Erika Viktor, Uncategorized

Kewpie the giant deadline doll
Kewpie the Giant Deadline Doll


The Deadline. This object stands anywhere from one hundred feet to one thousand feet tall. Its shadow casts long and far. And it smells like mildew basements and scented Glad garbage bags.

I asked a few children to draw what they thought a deadline looked like. Here’s what they came up with:


Evil Anglerfish Child DrawingAs you can see this one did not get much sleep and wants nothing more than to swallow you.

Evil Scary My Little Pony With Scar FaceThis one is titled “My Little Deadline” and looks to be juggling a flame and one of those coffee table bowl balls menacingly.

Looming Anime Men These guys are smiling but we both know they are gonna do something bad with that hat.


What are these ever-wise children telling us about the thing we fear so much? That the deadline is as lovely and sweet as free-admission day to the petting zoo?


A deadlines is a terror-monger and you wouldn’t invite it to your wedding even if it married your sister. No wonder you can’t get anything done! No wonder you avoid your work like it is the last seat left in the lunch room next to that kid who eats his dandruff. Deadlines can be looming, scary balls o’ proof that you are inadequate, small and really, really in trouble if you don’t get your butt in gear.

The Anatomy of a Deadline

Dissecting words is much more fun than dissecting sharks in science class when you were in the 9th grade. It smells less, too.

Dead = Not Alive
Line = Boundary

Geez, no wonder you don’t like it. If you are anything like me, boundaries are only there to be crossed. And death? Well, ever since Bambi’s mother was shot by Gator Hunters you pretend THAT doesn’t exist, thankyoumuchly (How dare you, Disney?) You probably rewrote the ending in your head too: “Just kidding, Bambi! I’m still alive! Hank the Beaver and I wanted to teach you a lesson about going places you shouldn’t, like the meadow and  Aeropostale on 50% days. Now let’s help Hank clean his 44 caliber, shall we?”

Also, deadlines have unsurprisingly icky origins. It came into use during the Civil War. At the Andersonville prison camp, a wall of hewn logs surrounded the place. If a prisoner went past the logs, they would be shot dead on sight.


So here’s you: gentle artist. Sensitive artist. All you want to do is somehow dance to your own inner poetry to the beauty of the world. But, then someone (likely, yourself) tells you if you dance too long, you will be shot.

So you stop dancing.

And all poetry gets sucked out of the air.

No one celebrates the beauty of the world.

Darkness falls. The Nothing eats Fantasia.

In every blog post, book and podcast you have read about goals, some buzzed-haircutted square-jawed GROANY says something like: “In order to succeed you must give yourself deadlines!”

I say: “Give yourself a better haircut, Groany!”

“But Erika,” you shout with a mouthful of poetry, “the world relies on deadlines, demands them! I can’t change the world!”

To which I join my hands together in a peaceful gesture of serenity and say. “Do not change the world, change yourself.”

“You mean, be the change you want to see in the world? Didn’t Gandhi say that?”



Replace the Deadline with an Outline

Instead of dealing with a deadline, help yourself out, give yourself an OUTLINE.
Line = Boundary
Out = To leave an enclosed space
Outline = To leave the boundary


The Difference

An outline doesn’t smell like Glad trash bags. An outline smells like a plan. Plans basically serve one purpose: to quell your anxiety.

Deadlines produce anxiety. Outlines dampen anxiety.

Anxiety is an artist’s deepest and most bitter enemy next to shame-mongers, Groanies and The American Dream. Anxiety happens to all of us in the form of: Procrastination, over-eating, over-shopping, over-eating, too many romances, general drama, and substances that hush the demons.

Outlines reduce anxiety by giving you the dance, the moves and the length of the song. A sample outline would look like this:

  • Write blog post
  • Party
  • Edit blog post
  • Pet cat
  • Publish blog post
  • Party with cat

You get the idea. In the end, you got something done, the cat got a pat as it sat on your lap. Conversely, deadlines look like this:

  • If you don’t finish this blog post by noon, I will boil spiders and dump them in your hair and make you go to the prom like that.

Deadlines vs. Outlines in Practical Terms

Argument: “But Erika, someone gave me this deadline! I need to deliver or ELSE!”

Point, counterpoint. The word else is just another word for scary-future-anxiety-producing-thing. So your boss, the gallery owner, your teacher, your spouse insists you have this thing done? Well, there is either plenty of time to do it or there isn’t. Which one is it? Plenty of time or no time?

If plenty, you are fine! Get a quick outline going and just do it!

If there is no time, go back to that person and let them know you will be late. If they fire, breakup, or lambaste you, remember this truth:

There are six billion other people out there. And more born every second. Someone else will give you a chance!

Whew—that felt better, right?

“Easier said than done!” you shout like a kitten in the rain.

Let me point something out to you. You got in this jam for two reasons:

  •  The deadline made you feel so anxious that you procrastinated.
  • You over-promised, thinking you could get something done way, way, way before you could because, quite literally, you had no idea how long it would take.

Both could have been avoided and will be avoided in the future because you are suddenly going to get really good and doing these two things:

  • Learning how to outline your work and taking baby steps, Cap’n.
  • Never promising a date until you have looked at that outline.

Repeat after me:

“I will have to get back to you on when I can deliver that. I have to look at my outline.”
“I will have to get back to you on when I can deliver that. I have to look at my outline.”
“I will have to get back to you on when I can deliver that. I have to look at my outline.”

Say it twelve times then blow out a candle. It’s symbolic… don’t make me explain, just do it!


Why It Sometimes Takes Years to Get Your Outline Down

When you first start out with anything, you tend to think things take almost no time. You over-estimate your capabilities. You are, frankly, kind of a pretentious jerk:

“Took JRR Tolkien twelve years to write Lord of the Rings? I’m gonna write my fantasy epic in six months!”

Humans are notoriously horrible at predicting the future. We literally can’t do it. To come even close we need to invest a lot of work, study and fairy dust. Nor can we predict how they will perform when the stakes are high. We start out thinking we can run like a machine only to find ourselves breaking down in the first mile.

But there is a way around this problem. Your first job, before you go promising things to people, is to figure out just how long that thing you do is going to take by becoming experienced enough to understand your own process. Over months and years of doing the same thing over and over again, you steadily learn just about how long it takes on both the long and short end. Then add 20% for incidental hiccups and the occasional crisis of faith.

I had a friend who, after years of trying, got a job at a newspaper writing columns. She had written many columns before but she wrote on spec so she had almost an infinite amount of time to polish. When she was given a job where she had to write sometimes five articles a day, she very quickly became a hairball in the throat of serenity.

“I have no idea how I am going to do this,” she told me. “I guess I’ll just have to give up sleep!”

Had my friend known herself a little better, had she spent time steadily understanding how long a well-written article takes to deliver, she would never have promised that greedy newspaper boss man five articles a day. She would have had more self-respect than that.

After I finished my first book, I was on a call with my agent, extremely excited. I proclaimed proudly: “I am going to write three novels in a year!”

That was two years ago. The novel I started shortly thereafter isn’t done yet. Socrates would punch me in the face for not “Knowing thyself.”

I had put on the brakes. I am learning now how to work steadily, how to know how long it will take me to write an entire novel–despite this being my third. I am looking for every tip or trick I can to shorten the time without sacrificing the quality. It is not easy, but I am determined not to stop until I get it down.

It is imperative that, while you are getting really good at dancing to the poetry of the universe, you figure out just how long that generally takes. Over time, with repeated effort, you will know just how long it will take to get that dance done.

Last Reason to Use Outlines

On my tombstone it will say one word: Play.

Playing is the only way to be happy.  Your work should be like play. Anything that threatens the playfulness should be seriously stared at with a 1980’s-raunch-face until it shuts itself into its own gym locker.
Chances are if you are concerned with the serious things of life, you are not playing. Chances are if you are taking yourself so seriously that you are a stress mess, you are not playing. Is that really worth all the dollars, fame and fortune you are pursuing?

“Knock Knock!”
“Who’s there?
“The only life you have.”
“The only life I have who?
“Stop being an idiot with the only life you have.”

I doubt those Civil War captives played around with deadlines, and neither should you. Make a safe outline zone and get to the fun part, the playing part. You only have one life, do you honestly want to trade it for the mirage of happiness you think cash and fame will bring you? Are you that self-loathing?

If everyone was suddenly abducted by aliens and taken to Kolob, wouldn’t that just take the pressure off? How long would it take you to finish that work of art, that novel, that sculpture of a horse made of medical gloves? Probably far less time.

So stand up to Mr. Deadline, break outta prison.

I bet you will get a lot done!