How Waiting Until the Last Minute Can Be a Smart Time Management Trick

I’ve lost count of how many times I said it would be the “last time” … but then always found myself right back in the same spot …

That spot where, once again, I’d waited until the 11th hour to get started on a project.

But these days, when that happens, I don’t worry so much about it.

I used to think my form of procrastinating was a bad habit.

But, I’ve come to realize waiting actually helps me complete my projects on time … without the quality of my work suffering.

In fact, some of those “last-minute” projects have turned out to be my best pieces of writing.

That was certainly the case for my first published book, Barbarians of Wealth.

Talk about pressure to get it done.

I had only 12 weeks to write what turned out to be a 600-page manuscript. And sure enough, I waited way longer than I intended to get started.

But, I finished on time … with a week to spare, actually.

What’s Going on Here?

Well, turns out there’s a psychological principle at work. It’s called the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson discovered this phenomenon 112 years ago.

They were experimenting on lab rats, using mild electrical shocks. They found that slightly elevated shocks motivated the rats to go through a maze at a much faster speed than normal.

They also found that, if the shock given was too strong, the rats scurried in random directions, becoming ineffective at navigating the maze. And, if the shock was too light, the rats barely budged.

The two psychologists developed the working theory that some forms of stimulation, such as nervous energy or anxiety, can actually improve your performance.

Sure enough, this proves true with athletes and students.

Think back to when you were a student taking an exam. What you didn’t know at the time was that bit of stress you felt helped you remember the information you’d studied.

But, like the old Chinese proverb, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Too much anxiety can impair your ability to concentrate and make it more difficult to remember the correct answers.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law holds true when working on client projects. A certain amount of nervous anxiety or adrenaline helps you get projects completed and turned in on time.

And, one way to generate that “just right” amount of adrenaline and anxiety is to wait until the last minute to get started.

But, the trick is figuring out when that last minute is.

Wait too long and you’ll be overwhelmed by stress, leaving you frantic and barely able to get anything done. Start too soon, and you won’t feel motivated or at your most creative.

Learning to Predict Your Best “Last Minute”

You need to do a little pre-planning and map things out, whether that’s on paper or in your head.

To do this effectively, you need to know the full scope of the entire project.

You’ll want to ask yourself:

  • How familiar am I with the subject matter?
  • Am I able to draw from personal experiences in order to find relatable stories I can use for this project?
  • How much research is involved?
  • Do I have all the right resources needed?
  • How much time do I need to set aside for research?
  • Does the project involve multiple pieces of writing, or is it one big project?

The answers to these questions will give you an idea of how much time you need to do for research, writing, and revisions.

If you’re unfamiliar with a topic, each step will take more time. If the project is similar to a dozen others you’ve already successfully written, then you’ll need less time.

When you’re taking on a big project, to make the best use of the Yerkes-Dodson Law, give yourself three deadlines. One for research. One for writing. And, one for revisions.

Deadlines almost always work better when it’s someone other than you holding your feet to the fire. So, work with a writing partner or set these deadlines up with your client, explaining what they can expect at each one.

Deadline 1 – Research and Big Idea: By this deadline, you must have your project well-researched and be well-versed in the nuances of your audience and your topic. At this deadline, you’ll share your big idea, your outline, and a summary of key points with your client or your writing partner.

Deadline 2 – Writing the First Draft: When you reach this deadline, you’ll have a fully fleshed-out, but still rough, draft of your project to work with.

Deadline 3 – Completing Revisions and Polishing Your Final Draft: This is your final deadline. The one you originally set up with your client. By this deadline, you want a polished, well-constructed piece to hand in.

By dividing your work into these three phases, you can leave things to the last minute multiple times, getting the advantage of that adrenaline rush. But, you also build in a safety net, in case you misjudge the time you need.

If you blow your research deadline, for example, that won’t affect your ability to write a high-quality draft by the final deadline.

(The other advantage of using these three deadlines with a client is you get buy-in each step of the way … or a chance to course correct early, if the client doesn’t like the direction you’re heading.)

Trust What You Know

The truth is every writer writes at a certain pace.

For example, since I’ve been writing for almost 30 years, I know I can complete about an 800- to 1,000-word article in two hours. A 40-page long-form sales letter takes me much longer, anywhere from two to six weeks.

When you know your actual writing rate, you can formulate an instinctual idea of how long it will take you to do a project. And, from there you’ll know how to pick the best “last minute” for the project … or, if you even want to use your “last-minute” strategy.

If the project is big enough or on an unfamiliar topic, starting sooner may be the better approach.

But, here’s the thing to keep in mind. If you have a hard time staying motivated or focused, that nervous energy you feel when you wait until the last minute can be key.

So, learn to tap into that when you need it. You’ll get more done, faster … and you’ll write better, too.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: August 26, 2020

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