A few months back, I landed a pretty big freelance assignment. Considering my previous submissions to this particular publication had been rejected, I was ecstatic that this one was accepted and given the green light. To make matters even better, it was going to pay more than usual and give me experience creating more long-form (2,000-3,000 words) content.
That was back in April. I just now finished the assignment (it’s July by the way).
What took so long? Was it procrastination? Did I not have the time available? Did emails take longer than need be for interviews?
A mish-mash of all of the above.
Most of all, it was a case of importance and allowing other tasks to stack up on my plate. Looking back, I’m not even sure how it happened. I remember outlining the miscellaneous steps to put the article into words. I lined up interviews, had audio recordings, wrote meticulous outlines – the whole nine yards.
But, I never truly got started – at least not for the first month or so. Even when I did get started, I wasn’t happy with the work I was producing. I’d spend time rewriting each paragraph until I just gave up with frustration. Worse than that, I wouldn’t even work on the project, electing to spend time focusing on other things that didn’t really matter in the long-run. I’d waste time to avoid being productive.
I didn’t have a single deadline in place – not from the editor of the publication, not from the sources, and most importantly, not from myself. This lack of accountability made it easy to slough off the assignment and postpone the inevitable.
All of this culminated in me taking three months to ship something that should have taken a third of the time (at the most).
We’ve all done this at one time or another (If you haven’t, please email me your secret). Even though something may be important to us (as in getting published and paid for a quality publication), we postpone it inevitably while we take care of tasks that are happening in the now. Especially if the project has no set deadline, it seems like it could be postponed for forever with little repercussion. Here’s how I ended up avoiding the situation and finally getting to work.
Stop working in the now.
Long projects exist in the future and seem to be so far off. Meanwhile, emails, tweets, and Facebook posts happen far more frequently and seem to demand our immediate attention. All of this focus on the present and the imminent fear of missing out if we divert our attention for the slightest moment lead us to neglect future progress to stay busy in the present. In the end, all of this focus on the now prevents us from getting any real work done.
“Don’t confuse the urgent with the important.” Preston Ni
Bigger projects require intense focus and dedication. For reference, I can sit down and whip up an 800-word article in an hour. A 2,000 word feature compiling several interviews takes a bit longer. When I was trying to focus on the longer assignment, I continually had other things coming in over email that seemed to require my immediate attention. In reality, they probably could have waited. Secretly, I just wanted an excuse to abandon my current focus to check an item off my to-do list. Even though I’m a sucker for the “inbox zero” achievement at the end of the day, I stopped worrying about notifications piling up and worried more about getting to work (I also all but quit Facebook – more on that in another post.)
Make the project a daily task.
The work around that I eventually used to get the project done was to focus a little bit of time every day on completing and improving the piece. The paralysis of a big assignment can lead to inaction. Instead, I put smaller tasks like “edit one paragraph” into my to-do list and checked them off on a daily basis. This not only built momentum but also helped to breakdown a large, looming goal into something much more manageable.
Ship the imperfect.
After setting my own personal due date for the assignment, I sat down and started chugging out work. I eventually had the right thoughts in place and had compiled a decent first draft. But, even as the due date approached, I wasn’t ready to send the article off. This was my first piece for this publication, and I wanted to secure future work. How was I going to do this if my first draft was a piece of junk?
It boils down to this: at some point, you have to push out a product (or article or whatever your craft is called). In production, this is referred to as the minimum viable product. It’s the most basic version that still demonstrates the capabilities of the product. In my case, it’s the most basic form of the article that still showcases the topic at hand, sides of the story, and my skills as a writer.
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Stephen King, On Writing
Often times, this is the hardest part. We spend so much time in preparation for the launch with planning, outlining, writing, and revising that we forget that at some point, we actually need to “publish”.
Joel Gascoigne, founder of Buffer, wrote about this when he was pushing out the first version of the app. They released the first version without a few key features but added that the main elements were there.
“You can build something pretty or make the code super clean if you want to, but that will just be an exercise for yourself at this point. What will help you to validate the idea and see whether you should continue along this same path is to get the product in front of users and talk with them and observe what they do.”
In the end, revising your product or article over and over again is a useless exercise that simply delays the inevitable and serves as a way to keep you busy but ultimately delays shipping. I’ve read more than a few articles and books on how to improve your writing style and one of the most frequently given pieces of advice is “just write”. Stop worrying about the reaction and just hit the publish button. I’ve been adopting this in more than a few areas of my life, and it’s been working surprisingly well.
To get the piece out the door, I forgot about proofing and rewriting. I just dropped the draft in an email and hit send. It was a liberating experience. You know what? The editor got back to me with a few adjustments, but everything worked out just fine. The piece is going to run soon, and I’m working on future pitches for the publication. In the end, you’re only as good as the work you publish.