The dreaded ‘A’ word

Calling all free-floating freelancers/creatives: How the heck do you deal with the absence of deadlines? Because I have to tell you, I’m struggling. I’m all good with setting deadlines when I’m under contract for someone else, for example when I take on a book translation, which I subdivide into manageable chunks, each with their own deadline that I wouldn’t dream of missing unless I am struck by lightning. But when it’s ‘just’ me, that’s when it goes haywire.

How come? It’s not that I don’t want to do it – I do. I just can’t seem to get any kind of rhythm going, there is no urgency. I remind myself that I used to be a shit-hot project manager in a fast-paced international business, and I thrived on managing the various strands that needed to come together to make something happen. We always had tight deadlines and we always kept them, however impossible they seemed. So why can’t I do that for myself?

That’s where the ‘A’ word comes in. Accountability. I am accountable to no one but myself, and I appear to be a super-slack taskmaster. Who cares whether I start a promotion for my book today, or tomorrow, or maybe next week? What does it really matter when I draft the outline for the next novel? Yes, my office needs clearing out and reorganizing, but I can do that later… I can’t believe this is how I’m acting. It’s embarrassing. It’s pathetic. It’s as though I’m adrift in an endless sea of time without any meaningful parameters.

I became aware of this in a big way when someone else asked for help with a project she very much wanted to complete but just couldn’t seem to get a meaningful workflow going. To my own surprise, I jumped at the opportunity to ‘help’ – mirror, mirror – and very quickly realized that the strength of our ongoing weekly online meetings isn’t that I am checking on her progress, but that all of a sudden we both have someone who expresses a formalized interest in what the other is doing, how it’s going, where we’re stuck, etc. All of a sudden, we both have context.

A couple of weeks later, another friend popped up with a similar need – someone to hold her accountable for a project she keeps putting off – and then another. Light bulbs were going off in my head: how wonderful that it’s not just me! How amazing that this should appear right now, when I feel so lost with my own stuff! How incredible that my current most self-destructive trait should turn into a mutually beneficial opportunity!

On reflection, I don’t think ‘accountability’ is the problem. The dreaded ‘A’ word is like the stick we feel we should beat ourselves into action with (or get someone else to do it on our behalf) and, like any other thing we should do, it’ll never work in the long run. It’ll just activate our Inner Teenager into finding a zillion reasons why it can’t be done, and then we’ll have that to deal with on top of the unfinished project. What I think we need is context, and the support of someone who actually cares whether or not we stick to our own deadlines. At least that’s what I found I need, and I’m not that different from other folks out there.

And I want to shout out a great big thank-you to those lovely people who have reached out to me, because by asking me to help you to honour your deadlines, you’ve provided context for me. Isn’t it great how it all comes together?!

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

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