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How to Overcome Overwhelm When Writing on a Deadline

stopwatch with red text deadline at top to illustrate writing on a deadlineHere’s the situation: You committed to writing something that is important but not urgent, and now you’re up against the deadline. What the document is doesn’t matter. It could be a blog article, a report, a book chapter, or countless other types of writing. The deadline is soon—maybe just a few hours away or less.

Ideally, you’ll never be in this situation. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and most people who write as part of their work find themselves in this situation occasionally. To be prepared, bookmark the following four-step process and refer to it the next you have a pressing deadline. By following the checklists within each step, you can overcome overwhelm when writing on a deadline—and focus on the task at hand.

4 Steps for Writing on a Deadline

Step 1: Create the right environment to focus

  • Situate yourself in a setting where you are most productive—whether that is your home office, a coffee shop, a co-working space, or somewhere else. If you focus better when working at a standing desk, use one while completing the project.
  • Silence phone and computer notifications.
  • If you will need water, tea, or coffee nearby, get it before you start writing.
  • Close Internet browser tabs—including email and LinkedIn.
  • Turn on white noise or focus music on YouTube if you work better with music playing in the background. (This strategy is the exception to the guidance in the point above about closing browser tabs.)

Step 2: Draft your document

  • Determine how much time you have for each part of the writing process. For instance, if you have three hours total, perhaps you will dedicate one and a half hours for drafting, one hour for revising, and half an hour for proofreading. Do your best to stick to the schedule, but don’t waste energy criticizing yourself if you fall behind. Stay focused on your job: to produce a quality piece of writing that you are proud of while meeting your deadline.
  • Use the Pomodoro Method, or a version of it customized to your preferences. The Pomodoro Method is a time management method in which you set a timer for 25 minutes and work without stopping until the timer goes off. Then, you take a break for three to five minutes. After the break, restart the process (25 minutes of work followed by a brief break) for several series before taking a longer break of about 15 minutes. I often adapt this method and scale it according to the project I’m working on. Sometimes I will break down my work time into seven-minute increments, which serve as “sprints.” I also sometimes ignore the breaks. This goes against a key component of the Pomodoro Method, but I’ve learned that when a wave of inspiration arises, I want to ride the wave for as long as I can! Note: The Pomodoro Method can be used for any type of work project at any time. Don’t save it only for when you’re writing on a deadline!
  •  Consider switching to “Focus” mode in MS Word. You can do so by selecting “View,” then “Focus” in the drop-down menu. Focus mode will display your document but nothing else on the screen. You can use the Focus setting even if you use two computer monitors. Your second monitor will still display other documents you have visible—so either clear that desktop or only have documents open that you plan to reference while you write.
  •  Strategize regarding your “big picture” approach to the project. At the outset, identify the topic, main idea, or key value proposition. If you’re unsure of this, brainstorm and/or clarify your thoughts by freewriting, talking aloud (to yourself or someone else), or focused thinking. Knowing your focal point is crucial. If you don’t know this information, you will struggle.
  • Start writing by choosing to begin with whatever is easiest. For instance, if you’re writing an article, you might start with the conclusion or a section in the middle if you already have that in mind. I’ve written and said countless times that this approach—starting with whatever feels easiest—ends up saving significant time because you’re eliminating the chance you’ll stare at a blank screen, unsure of what to type. After you’ve finished the easiest part, move to the section that now feels easiest. By doing this, you’ll have numerous “small wins” that will give you momentum to tackle the most challenging part of the writing project. Note: This approach inherently gives you permission to not work in linear fashion unless that feels easiest.
  •  In your word processing application, turn the auto save feature on or save your document frequently.
  • Periodically assess whether the direction you’re taking is in line with the “big picture” goal you established initially. If not, redirect your focus immediately.

Step 3: Revise and proofread

  • After you’ve completed drafting the document, read it from beginning to end. Assess whether the content is as strong as you’d like. If not, focus on strengthening the points you are making. You might need to reorder sections and cut ideas.
  • Once you’re pleased with the content, start editing for clarity and conciseness. Trim words, strengthen verbs, omit needless words, and eliminate ambiguity. Remember, in the words of Brené Brown, “Clear is kind.”
  • Proofread your text. A great first step is to run MS Word’s Editor. You can also use Grammarly. Above all, use your own proofreading skills to read the text because MS Word and Grammarly aren’t perfect. A couple strategies include printing the document and reading it out loud.
  • Seek the feedback of an outside reader if you can. Another set of eyes can be invaluable.

Step 4: Submit the project

  • When you’ve completed your project, submit it.
  • Take time to self-reflect afterward. What worked well? Do you thrive under pressure? What would have worked better? Most importantly, what can you change to reduce the likelihood that you’ll be in the same situation again?

Takeaway

Some people thrive under pressure. With writing, you may find that you have a “sweet spot” for feeling pressure while still not putting yourself at risk of missing your deadline. If this is the case, set your schedule accordingly when writing on a deadline, so you can break up your work sessions across several days rather than just one day.

If you despise working under pressure, take care to create a realistic schedule so you can avoid the overwhelm that can occur when you’re facing a pressing deadline. Either way, if writing is a part of your role, be sure to bookmark this article just in case you need it for future reference!

Heidi owns and operates Career Path Writing Solutions, a communications consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals and businesses communicate when it matters most. She delights in helping job seekers navigate career change and guiding business owners to present their value proposition persuasively. Heidi earned her PhD in history from Duke University and teaches professional development for various university programs and organizations. She holds certifications in resume writing, interview preparation, and empowerment coaching, and sits on the Certification Committee of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches.

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