Setting Deadlines for Creative Projects: Helpful or Hurtful?

As I consider my goals for the coming year, I find myself wondering if it makes sense to put deadlines on creative projects. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of slowing down when I create, whether I am trying to draw my dog, develop a pattern for a soft sculpture giraffe, or write a farcical novel. I equate deadlines with stress and hurry. Does it make sense to rush creative work?

My sketches get better the slower I go.
My sketches get better the slower I go.

The part of me that wants to get paid says: yes. I need to be finishing things, not just making them, if I am ever going to have anything to sell. The part of me that loves to create and loves my creations says: no. Deadlines are a bad idea! They cut short the day-dreaming and experimenting that can result in complex, rich work. Of course, like the work I do, the story about deadlines is much more complicated than this.

Deadlines keep us working steadily. Most creatives have some resistance to starting their work. Fear and doubt can keep us from doing the things that we really love. Having a self-imposed deadline to meet can get an artist painting, a writer scribbling, a quilter sewing.

Reaching a deadline gives us something to celebrate. Acknowledging and celebrating our own successes regularly helps us to see how we have grown and how much we have accomplished.

Meeting deadlines increases our satisfaction as we work our way through a long project. Breaking a large project into smaller pieces so that we can see the progress we are making even though we are not done yet helps keep huge projects from crushing us with their endlessness.

Deadlines help us focus on what is essential. Knowing when things need to be done tells us what we need to be doing right now to meet our goals. A little urgency can make our priorities clear.

At the same time, deadlines increase our stress level. Some stress is good for us, but too much can be devastating to our health. Unrealistic deadlines or a perfectionist attitude about achieving them can do us more harm than good.

Limited time for a project can limit our options. Rushing to finish a large and complicated work like a quilt can mean cutting corners or giving up on some ideas. For those of us who like big, complex projects, rushing seems silly. We want to have all the options available to us when we have to make a creative decision. A looming deadline can mean we don’t have time to do what the piece really needs.

Perhaps the worst effect deadlines have on creativity is the emphasis they place on the product over the process. A deadline can make our creativity about the object, not the making. But we love the making. That’s the whole reason we started the project in the first place. The finished product is just the result of our time. We might love it or hate it or feel something in between. If we put all our emphasis on the result, then we can de-value our process and make it feel like we’ve wasted our time.

Are deadlines a good idea for creative work? Sometimes. We have to decide for ourselves which projects need pushing along and which need to be allowed time to grow naturally. It’s up to us to determine if we are accomplishing the things we want to, and if we need to prioritize our work. For those of us hoping to finish huge projects before we die, deadlines may be the answer.

What is your experience with setting deadlines for creative projects? I’d love to hear from you.

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Kit Dunsmore

Kit Dunsmore has believed in the magic underlying the muggle world since she was a child searching for the Shetland pony pooka she was sure was hiding in her back yard. She learned early on that books were magic doors into other worlds, and that she could revisit a beloved character or place by opening the right book. As she grew, she decided she wanted to make magic with words, too. Today Kit writes about things she loves: poodles and dragons, witches and artists, quirky underdogs and loyal friends. Whether her setting is 6th-century England, the imaginary Twelve Kingdoms, or an art-obsessed version of modern America, magic always finds its way into her story. She enjoys turning fairy tales inside out and watching characters sacrifice everything to reach their goal, but she also believes in happy endings. When she isn't writing, Kit experiences magic by making things with her hands. Over the years, she's made quilts, fabric sculptures, collages, sweaters, and blank books. Her newest interest is learning how to spin her own yarn, a skill guaranteed to strengthen one of her many delusions: that she is a self-sufficient pioneer woman. She also thinks she is a hobbit, a witch, an artist, and a good cook. Living in the foothills of Colorado, Kit enjoys the giant skies and prairie landscapes which suit her need for wide open spaces. In addition to hiking through glorious scenery with her husband or imagining herself living in the Middle Ages, Kit works as a pillow for her miniature poodle and polishes the next small piece of her handmade life.

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