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Illustrator Tips: Deadlines vs. Regiment

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had projects I’m working on as part of some lofty goal and ambition. When I was very young, my mom brought me a massive spool of paper from her office and I was determined to fill the entire spool with a continuous drawing - a single world which would start at one end of the spool and end at the other. I got about 2-3 feet across the paper before finally giving up. 

In Junior High and High School, I tried to write and draw my own comic book with friends. We met at our local library and discussed for hours the kinds of things we wanted to do with our comic books, though we never actually did them.

In college, I had ambitions of launching my own design portal which would feature my work as well as the work of other creatives and friends. I got further with this endeavor and actually launched the site, though it rapidly fell into a state of disrepair because I didn’t know how to maintain it. The endeavor felt too big for me to manage.

Finally, over the past 5-10 years, I’ve been trying to write and draw my own comic, graphic novel, web comic, picturebook, you name it. Yet just like the other endeavors of my past, it hasn’t happened.

Why?

I contrast those endeavors with the successes I’ve seen working at studios full times. As many of you know, I got my start as a graphic designer and spent over 10 years as a working professional. I worked for studios, marketing firms, action sports companies, video game studios, etc. All of these shops had aggressive deadlines and not once did I miss one. I did some of my best work under the pressure of these deadlines. 

Now, this isn’t to extol my virtues or accomplishments - quite the opposite. I found that if I didn’t have someone else telling me when something was due, I simply wouldn’t get it done. Any successful launch of a website or work of creativity produced by me was the product of forced deadlines which kept me from endless exploration and made me productive. That means it wasn’t any virtue of my own that did it.  It was the deadlines which helped me to produce.

So shouldn’t deadlines work for producing my own projects? I sure thought they would, yet they never did. I found when I focused on deadlines, I would set up lofty goals such as “I want to write an entire graphic novel in a month” or “I want to draw at least 1 comic book page per day and be finished with the graphic novel in 4 months.”  Focusing on the deadline always left me coming up short. I would set the deadline, feel great that I was making progress, and then blow past the deadline only to end in failure.

I found myself doing the same thing this month in an effort to write my picturebook. I set the deadline, sat down to work, and simply stared at a blank page. All I could think about was how I wasn’t going to reach my deadline of writing the book in a month and after 2 days had gone by, I very nearly gave up.

That’s when I realized focusing on a deadline wasn’t going to work. I needed to focus on daily routine. What I needed was regiment.

Instead of focusing on the deadline, I began focusing on daily goals: write 1 page today, draw one thing today. I would sit down to write at the same time every day, typically just as the sun was coming up in the morning. I made myself write a minimum of 1 page. Maybe the page would be good, most likely it would be bad, but I was forcing myself to create a new habit which would have me producing every day.

The surprising thing was not only did this approach work, it ended up working better than I ever expected. After only a few days, I was finding myself writing 2-3-4 pages instead of just 1. Ideas started flowing in greater abundance because my mind had been trained to create at a certain time each day. It was a point of practice which created the opportunity for the muse to show up, and show up she did.

This doesn’t mean deadlines are bad or unhelpful - it simply means that a deadline itself doesn’t get you to produce work. You need the deadline, yes, but you also need the regiment which will take you from point A to point Z. Its like standing at the foot of a mountain and saying to yourself “I want to climb to the top of this mountain by the end of the day!”. There’s your deadline. But just declairing you want to get to the top doesn’t mean you’re instantly transported there and without steps, you’ll find yourself still at the foot of the mountain at the end of the day. What’s needed is steps to get you from the foot to the summit, one foot after another (regiment).

Hope your projects are going well!