Why It Pays to Panic Early (and How to Do it Effectively)


Ask any writer or artist who has spent hours (or days) staring at a blank sheet of paper and they will tell you how paralysing creative freedom can be.

And the freelance life may sound idyllic to those of you who have to report for duty in an office each day, but the freedom to arrange your own time can be just as intimidating as a blank page. (I coach lots of freelancers on this issue – so if you were thinking it was just you, trust me, you’re not alone. πŸ˜‰ )

Paradoxically, the more time and freedom you have, the harder it can be to get started.

Think back to one of those days where it felt like you had all the time in the world to get everything done. So you procrastinated – then found yourself at the end of the afternoon, wondering where the time went.

Look back over the past year – did you achieve everything you set out to? Or did you leave some things till it was nearly too late, so you had to rush them? And were there some things that never got finished at all?

For many people, especially creative types, leaving things to the last minute is a way of life. It’s hard to beat the adrenaline-and-caffeine rush of all-night work sessions as the deadline approaches.

And if you’re happy with that lifestyle, I’m not here to spoil the party. Just like skinning a cat, there are plenty of ways to get creative work done.

But if the magic of deadline magic is starting to wear thin, and you’d rather find a less stressful way of working, I have a little tip for you.

It’s a habit I’ve noticed in a certain type of creative person, who seems to have no issue with deadlines, who never seems to procrastinate, and who gets a hell of a lot more amazing work done than the average person:

Panic early.

Look ahead, work out how much you have to do, and how much time you really have to get it all done. And notice how that makes you feel.

I can almost guarantee you’ll feel a twinge of adrenaline. Not a full-blown panic, but enough of a shot in the arm to give you a sense of urgency about your work.

For example. I’m a ‘morning person’ as far as writing is concerned. There’s a window of about three or four hours each morning, during which I’m more alert and can get more written than during any other time of the day or night.

Combine that with the time I devote to working with clients and doing all the other things I need to do to keep my business running (not to mention family responsibilities), and I know that I never, ever, have more than a few short hours a day to write in.

So if I get to ten o’clock in the morning and I haven’t started writing, it’s time for me to panic. Because I’m on the verge of losing an entire day’s writing. Five more minutes could be fatal!

It works a treat. Some days, that flutter of fear is just what it takes to get me past Resistance (and out of Google Reader) and into creative flow.

It could work for you too. At the start of each day/week/month/year, ask yourself:

  1. How much do I want to get done?
  2. How much time do I really have to do it in?
  3. Can I afford to wait another minute before getting started?

Instead of waiting to the last minute for your adrenaline rush, why not get it while you still have time to put it to good use?

Over to You

Do you ever run out of time to get the important things done?

How do you get yourself to avoid leaving things till the last minute?

Could panicking early help you beat procrastination?

P.S. Last but not least – Happy New Year! I hope 2012 is a creative, productive and rewarding one for you. πŸ™‚

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 26-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder. And for bite-sized inspiration, follow Mark on Twitter.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Fantastic headline and, even better, a really great idea! It’s so important to plan ahead. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that too many writers spend too much time feeling panicked at their computers when, in fact, they should panic themselves into making a PLAN!

    The secret to meeting every deadline (and I’ve never missed on in my life!) is to break the task into smaller tasks and get started right away. Figure out how much you’re going to have to do each day to reach your goal and then do exactly that!

    It’s writing, not brain surgery….

  2. The proverbial blank canvas always sends me for a spin. Panicking is the absolute worst for me, early or otherwise.

    The thing I find most effective could make many people cross-eyed: I keep both the big picture (my end goal) and details in mind simultaneously.

    I work on small tasks, but as I work on each one I see how it fits into the whole project. It’s kind of like building a house – you stand on the unfinished floor and see not just the framed-in walls, but imagine how everything will take shape while it’s happening.

    I suspect that’s far too fluid for many productivity experts, but it keeps both sides of my brain busy and maintains a good work flow.

    • I love that double perspective. It’s hugely motivating when you see how the little details fit into the big picture – especially when they aren’t all that interesting in their own right.

  3. What a good post, Mark.

    There are certain metrics I use and keep track of.

    One of them is how much time I spend each day “in the zone,” meaning researching, writing, or otherwise creating, with no breaks or interruptions (this means actual work has to get done in order for the time to count in the day’s total).

    i’m using the Pomodoro Method – yes, I have a silly tomato timer on my desk. The tick tick of it is remarkably powerful.

    Like a total geek, I keep track of the hours and write the total on my calendar at the end of each day. Just knowing that I’m going to have to write a number down keeps me in the zone.

    Look forward to seeing what your other readers write about what works for them.

    All the best for 2012!

    • Hmm, would be great to have that kind of data, that kind of feedback is always useful for motivation.

      I like the idea of the Pomodoro technique but I’m not so good at stopping when the time is up – it always seems to happen just as I’m getting to an interesting/difficult bit, and I keep going, which defeats the point of it a bit. But I’d encourage people to check out Daphne’s Pomodoro article and try it for themselves.

      • Mark: Let me clarify, if I may …

        I have a modified approach to Pomodoro. I use the tomato timer to measure hours I’ve worked with full focus, i.e. “in the zone.” First, I decide what time I’m going to start and stop working – say it’s 7:00am until 10:00 am. Then I set the timer – the most you can set it for is 1 hour. So at the end of each hour, I keep reseting it, until the end-time I’ve decided on comes.

        In this process, I keep track of how many hours I’ve spent in the zone. If something distracts me during an hour, I keep track of how long I’ve spent on the distraction and subtract it out of the hour when the timer rings for that hour. Later in the day, if I decide to spend more time in the zone, I repeat the process, and add that time to my daily total. The most hours I’ve ever gotten in in a day is 7 (all in one sitting, if you can believe it – I was under a deadline). Some days I get in 2, others 5 – it depends. As I said, at the end of each day, I write my total hours on my calendar. That way, I can see over time how long I’ve REALLY spent doing my most important work.

        I also use the timer for things I don’t really want to do, like filing or bill paying. I’ll set the timer for an hour, do the task for exactly that long, and stop when the timer rings – no matter how much I’ve gotten done. This keeps me from not doing the task at all – because I’ve made a deal with myself: one hour and that’s it.

        Note: I find this last approach useful with children, for getting them to spend time cleaning their rooms or do their reading for school, etc. πŸ™‚

  4. Oh, the pomodoro method is brilliant, Susan. Anyone who wants to read more about it should look here: http://www.publicationcoach.com/free-articles/Pomodoro.php

  5. Happy New Year, Mark and everyone!
    I am absolutely not a procrastinator. As a mother of three children, I know that one or more of three could suddenly spike a fever three days before a deadline, and then priorities would be clear, so I cannot as a professional let it get to that.
    But even before being a mama, I hated the feeling of needing to be ingenious or creative in a state of stress or duress. So I have long done, and advised my students to do, what I call “front-loading.” Specifically, in scoping out the task at hand, I do not spread work out even in even chunks. I put the key conceptual work and research into maybe the first 25% of the time I have and give myself a shadow deadline maybe 75% into the time allotted for the whole project. I don’t think I have ever missed my shadow deadline.

    • Ah yes, children are a wonderful cure for procrastination. πŸ™‚ I find myself so grateful for the time I get to work, I don’t want to squander any of it.

      Front-loading is a great idea – especially useful for those of us who tend to under-estimate how long the work will take…

  6. Hi Creative People,

    I have been teaching creative tertiary students in Indonesia and this topic is my major focus. I have found that if creative students have discipline and complete their work early, it gives more time for refinements when the deadline is imminent. But the students who leave things to the last minute, leave themselves no time for consulting the teacher and making necessary refinements in the creative process. In my creative work, I am a big fan of doing things early in a calm state of mind.

    Thanks for the post Mark. Love your work.

    Simon Brushfield

  7. Whilst I appreciate the principle of “deadlines” I am not sure whether I like the idea of panicking and working/creating from nervous energy.

    Although I am sure it is better than creating nothing at all.

    How much does the love of what we do drive our productivity? I mean loving the process, the shaping the creating, the finding and the discovering.

    When we work this way “finishing” can almost be like grieving.

    Just my thoughts

    • I agree with you Geoff, the joy of work is – or should be – our main motivation for doing creative work. If we don’t have that, all the panicking (or any other productivity tips) in the world won’t help.

      But one of the paradoxes of creativity is that even though we enjoy creative work so much, it can be hard to get over that initial bump of Resistance to starting. Hence the billions of hours a year lost to procrastination in the creative industries. πŸ˜‰

      So the ‘panic early’ tip is just about getting you started – i.e. over that initial bump. Once you’re there an in the zone, you’ll be running on creative energy, not nervous energy. I promise. πŸ™‚

  8. Javier Tenorio says:

    Great article, personally the best way to control myself and inititiate autopanicking is by measuring the amount of daily hours I put into something. When your goal is measured in hours then each hour that passes by increases panicking.

  9. Honestly, whats funny is in college I always waited until the last minute to start projects. Surprisingly in the workforce, nothing has changed.