In the deadening calm of pre-dawn hours, they lurk like lions in the weeds of the unsuspecting mind. They wait as we flutter in and out of dreams like butterflies, the morning alarm nothing more than a distant concern. Slowly, something pulls us from our reverie, a tug of gravity grounding us in a disquieting tangle. They have awoken, announcing their arrival with flop sweat and a skipped heartbeat.
We’ve just remembered the deadline.
The way in which we handle deadlines says a lot about us. Deadlines are old friends for some, their appearance a welcome culmination of preparation and expectation. For others, deadlines appear like oncoming trains when one’s foot is stuck in the track. They are unwelcome visitors, foghorn blasts just behind the ear.
As with most things I’ve learned about myself over the years, I’m disappointed in how long it’s taken me to embrace them. I’ve spent most of my life looking at deadlines the way prisoners look at their cell doors — I resented them, struggling until that moment they’d open so I’d be free. The only difference was that I was the one doing the sentencing.
I didn’t grasp the subtleties of deadlines, the hidden gifts each one brings to the table. Once I understood the many flavors in which they come, the pressure lessened. Some deadlines are baby-soft, like a promise to get together with Grandma for Scrabble. Some seem vitally important but lessen over time, like a vow to get married before turning 30. Some, like tax day in April, seem completely inflexible until you realize the rest of the world already knew about the Form 4868 file extension.
Some ensure productivity, like the twice-monthly deadlines I set to write this column. Sure, it can sometimes be unpleasant on those weekend mornings when I’m startled awake by the realization I’ve forgotten to start writing after a busy week. On the other hand, they enforce creativity that might otherwise be ignored. Some of my best writing has come with the cold metal press of a deadline’s bullet chamber pressed against my cheek.
Of course, some deadlines are like razors in candy bars: unforgiving and urgent. As we get older and become involved in more activities, these tend to multiply like poison rabbits. If you’ve ever been late with a mortgage payment, you know what these feel like. The trick is to minimize these hard deadlines as much as you can … by living with your parents, for example.
In the end, how one views deadlines might be a geographical thing. French novelist Émile Zola once wrote, “One forges one’s style on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines.” American writer Rita Mae Brown took a slightly less draconian view when she wrote, “A deadline is negative inspiration. Still, it’s better than no inspiration at all.”
As for me, I’ve come to appreciate the bearable pressure of an appropriate deadline. It instills
a forward motion I might otherwise cede to comfort and practicality. As for those deadlines I’ve learned don’t really matter, British humorist Douglas Adams sums up my feelings best of all: “I love deadlines. I love the ‘whooshing’ sound they make as they fly by.”
You can read more at RobertFWalsh.com, contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.