Good Deadlines Drive the Imagination

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All projects need an end in sight to bring the creative flow to its natural conclusion. Yet many see the deadline as a dreaded device that squeezes the life out of a project. Disney Imagineer and Senior Principal Production Show Designer, Neil Engel, put a positive spin on deadlines when he says, “Deadlines can keep your imagination active, and ideas fresh and flowing.”

Engel’s perspective is about shifting our perspective to one that energizes activities, rather than causing the creative to freeze up. By shifting our attention to what motivates us and keeping the focus on the portion of the project being worked, Engel suggests that we can reframe our perspective and make the deadline just another objective.

After giving his viewpoint consideration, I realized the validity of making sure every deadline-based project is broken down into easily managed milestones. A fiction writer that has to write and deliver a manuscript in twelve months wouldn’t have to fret if he broke down the overwhelming 100,000 words into achievable milestones.

Most beginning novelists can write 1,000 words a day and pros can write twice that amount. By setting milestones for 1,000 words a day gives the slowest of writers a completed first draft manuscript in six months. A goal of 2,000 words a day converts the writer’s ideas into a first draft in half the amount of time.

The business salesman making cold calls can also breakdown his activities into milestones. If he makes 23 cold calls an hour, he is likely to get 3-7 prospects. Out of the 40 prospects during the day, he is likely to get 1-2 meetings. Out of seven scheduled meetings during the week, one or two are likely to convert into a sale.

If the boss is pressuring everyone to close one sale a week, the salesman might feel more pressure at the beginning of every week unless he focuses on the milestone process instead of that one deal that must be closed. In other words, our perspective makes the deadline nerve-racking or just another milestone.

A screenwriter doesn’t count the words, but the script pages with the total landing at 110-120 pages on average. The milestones for a first draft might be writing four pages a day, which would deliver the first draft in a month. However, most screenwriters that I know don’t go by page or word count, but by the number of scenes that the story requires.

The milestones for a screenplay are usually first broken out by reels, story sequences, or mini-movies. Then the story is broken down into smaller segments that meet the requirements of the beat sheet. When the writer focuses on just the key beats for any given day, there is little stress related to the deadline, which also reduces the pressure of on set rewrites—when everyone is waiting for the changed pages for that day’s shoot.

My past experiences confirm the accuracy of Engel’s perspective. I also agree with his view that some pressure is necessary to force the creative process to flourish. There is a reason all Broadway musicals take 8-12 weeks to rehearse. While some suggest producers can’t afford to pay for a longer rehearsal period, most pros agree that the show would become boring and flat for the performers if it extends past that standard period.

Engel presented the concept from a creative’s perspective when he says, “With too much time, a project can become overworked and lose its spontaneity or direction.”

For a successful project, it is critical that creatives stay fresh. They need enough time to do the job properly, which requires a strategically placed deadline. They also need to learn how to turn the deadline into a normal milestone to reduce the pressure to what is manageable in a normal day. By facilitating these two issues concerning deadlines, bosses and managers can get the most creativity and efficiency from their teams.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

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