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How I beat deadline anxiety to write a book

Like a lot of people, I struggle with anxiety. 

Deadlines are particularly stressful, which is crazy because I’m in an industry in which the deadline is sacrosanct. Your editor gives you a deadline and come hell or high water, you better get that story in on time.

Fortunately, over the last 10 years, I’ve developed strategies through cognitive behavioral therapy to manage my anxiety. I may still feel anxious when a deadline approaches, but I’ve learned to cope with the stress and complete my work on schedule.

I can handle the day-to-day assignments all right, but what happens when I’m faced with a new challenge, like writing a book?

Back in 2016, I signed a contract with Routledge Taylor & Francis to write a textbook about podcasting. I knew a lot about the subject and had some opinions on how to teach it. The big unknown was I’d never written anything as long as a book.

Initially, my plan was to interview as many people as I could. That was my reporter’s brain at work. Talk to as many sources as you can and then write up what they say. That’s what I did every day at my job. What could be so hard about that?

After spending two months recording interviews with about 60 people, I realized I had just four months until my final deadline. What at first seemed a difficult but achievable goal suddenly appeared to be an impossible feat. How was I going to take 50 hours of audio and turn them into a final manuscript?

I allowed myself to panic for a moment, then after a deep breath, I developed a plan.

  • Make Your Outline Your Guide – When I pitched the textbook idea to my publisher, they asked me to create an outline. I took that document and made it the tree on which I was going to hang all of the material I’d gathered from my sources. This allowed me to break up the interviews into different chapters and gave me a structure off of which to work.
  • Divide the Work into Achievable Steps – One of the traps people with anxiety fall into is viewing an entire project as a giant mountain to climb. It’s better to divide the project into a series of steps, which are to be completed over a period of time. That way you only focus on the step at hand and not the entire task. As long as you complete each step in order, you’ll reach the mountaintop by your deadline.
  • Make Deadlines/Keep Deadlines – That final deadline is unavoidable. To finish the project on time, you must create a deadline for each of the steps of the project and then complete them in order. Not only will this move you closer to your final deadline, you’ll achieve little milestones to stave off any anxiety. “I’m making progress. I’ve finished six steps and I just have four more to go.”
  • Organize Your Time – Dedicate a set number of hours each day to work on the project. Because I had a full-time job and a podcast, and I needed time to spend with my family, I dedicated four to five hours after dinner to work on the book. When I started the actual writing process, I figured out how many words I needed to write each night to finish a chapter in time to achieve my short-term goals. Some nights were harder than others, but I was always moving forward and meeting my deadlines.
  • Take Care of Yourself – Another trap people with anxiety fall into is worrying about a project all of the time. It can consume them. I made it a point to think about the book only when I was working on it. The rest of the time I focused on my day job, podcast or family. I also made sure I was eating well and getting enough rest.
  • Look for Timesavers – The only way for me to tackle the 50 hours of audio interviews I had to work with was to pay for a transcription service. The huge amount of time and labor I saved offset the expense of paying for the service.
  • Ask for Help – I turned to two friends to help me with the book. One was a graphic artist who provided illustrations and the other was an editor who reviewed each chapter as I finished it. The editor’s feedback was crucial to me completing the book on time. While continuing to write, I reviewed her notes to make sure I was on the right track. It was important that I didn’t get sidetracked with her corrections. She also edited my final draft before I submitted it to the publisher.
  • Build in a Safety Net – After completing the initial draft of my introduction and the first two chapters, I realized that I was going to need to write one more chapter than I’d initially thought. I didn’t need to do any new reporting, I just had to pull material from my interviews to create the new chapter. This meant finding time in my schedule. Fortunately, I’d built in some extra editing time in the final weeks of the project as a safety met. I moved the remaining writing deadlines back a couple days into the safety net, and I was able to fit the extra chapter in with very little effort.

Once I committed to following my plan and meeting all of my mini-deadlines, a sense of ease overcame me. The actual writing of the book was much less anxiety-inducing than I’d imagined. Each deadline achieved was another step closer to completion and another “attaboy” to my ego.

I turned the book in a day before my deadline, happy in my achievement and proud of how I’d beaten the anxiety monster. 

As always, if you’d like to suggest a topic for us to cover or individual to interview on It’s All Journalism, drop us an email at  editor@itsalljournalism.com.

 Michael O’Connell

This essay first appeared in the It’s All Journalism weekly email, follow this link to sign up for the newsletter.

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