The Finish Line

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If I only had a few more hours… or a couple of more days…

How long does a creative idea take? I was on a very long flight overseas last week and managed to watch a documentary about the rock band Coldplay. The only reason that I mention the flight part is because I can’t – for the life of me – remember the name of the documentary (thank you, jet lag!), but it was about the making of the album X&Y (which was the follow-up to their massively successful release, A Rush Of Blood To The Head). X&Y was a tough album for the band to make. They not only had issues with getting the songs just right, but they struggled with producers. The story goes that in this delay it, it caused their record company’s (EMI) stock price to drop because shareholders were expecting the album to be released in the fiscal year prior to when it actually hit the shelves.

You never know when a great song is going to hit you.

What would you do if you were an artist? If you were a songwriter? A painter? an author? Do you wait and wait for inspiration to hit hard? Do you work non-stop to develop your ideas until they are finally ready to be produced? Do you have to be an artist to think like this? What about the work that you do? How do you meet your deadlines? Are they realistic? Is there too much scope-creep? Do you think that the final product would have been that much better if you had just had some more time?

Deadlines… and the finish line.

What surprised me most about this documentary was what lead singer, Chris Martin, had to say about the album and getting things just right. He talked about simply getting it done. It wasn’t about whether or not shareholders were happy. It wasn’t about the problems they had with finding the right producer to help them actualize the songs. In all of that, the band had always set a very firm finish line, and they were constantly working towards that finish line. What was publicly perceived as them just taking their own, sweet time in the creative process could not have been further from the truth. They were writing the album with a finish line set in their mind and they weren’t going to fall short of it.

Creative work is not open-ended.

Staring off into the sky. Taking naps. Going for a long walk. Travelling for inspiration. All of these things may inspire the next creative breakthrough, but unless you are setting up your projects with firm deadlines and a clean finish line, odds are that your best work will never see the light of day. There’s no doubt that Coldplay has unlimited flexibility to do whatever it needs to do to get the best results, but something tells me that if they moved that finish line just a little bit closer, they would still have had the same level of success. Could an extra week of writing and editing have made my first business book, Six Pixels of Separation, sell more copies? Maybe, but the deadline (and the finish line) ensured that it was going to get done, and it ultimately helped me structure the process in a way that made the entire project come together.

Love your deadlines.

Too many people lament the deadline. They see them as evil. As stifling the creative process. As making the work suffer. I don’t. The finish line is a part of the process and, in many cases, this means that the work is going to representative of our best thinking in the framework of when the work is due. Does this mean we can create an opus in twenty-four hours? Some may be able to, but we’re also talking about having realistic deadlines and credible finish lines (fully recognizing that it’s not always possible to even get that). The moral of the story? When there’s a big project that has to get done, always keep that finish line in mind. You’re not just trying to create something magical. You’re trying to create something magical in time for that finish line.

There are too many great things that never get produced because people think that even having a finish line is detrimental to the outcome. How sad.


  1. Another strong, inspiring post, Mitch. And because no detail is too insignificant to matter (well, not to compulsive completists):
    That 2006 unauthorized Coldplay documentary is titled “Love, Actually.”
    From blurb: “This unauthorized biography chronicles the Brit-rockers’ meteoric rise to fame through rarely seen footage and interviews with friends and colleagues like Mike Patton, Martin Roach, Rachel Hopper and Ron Niblett.”
    So there you are — one less untied thread.

  2. Kubrick didn’t have deadlines…
    I’m an artist.. and so I’m something of an authority on this subject..
    I think deadlines are one way of thinking.. and doing things, and functioning in the world.. and I say this as an artist.
    You can’t be a designer without deadlines.. and.. there’s something about.. the market place and popular music.. where you probably need the deadline… and certainly there’s a lot to be said for deadlines.
    But.. I think there are other ways.
    For one thing.. deadlines.. are about getting things done.. a goal oriented approach.. as a pose to a process orientated approach.
    My experience of art school was that there was this kind of line.. the designer type side of things.. where deadlines were king, where in a lot of ways it wasn’t about you the designer but about.. the project or the teachers had this.. dictatorial feel.. I don’t know.. hard to explain.
    And then there was the fine arts side of things… I generally didn’t have deadlines.. most of my classes were like “do what you want, you just need to get two projects done for this class this semester.”
    Joseph Campbell has talked about this.. this notion of finding your bliss.. to do it you need to get rid of the external demands placed on you.. so.. design is all about those external demands.. fine art.. thats more about your soul.. about something inside you… and you can only get to those places when you put away the external demands, things like deadlines…
    And I think I should tell you this to.. I probably worked harder then anybody in that art school… I was was working 60 hours a week on stuff… I was out of control.. and indeed, things did get done.
    I think the problem is.. nobody knows about this fine arts path.. they only know about the design path.. and particularly in the world of marketing.. cause that’s what marketing is about.
    What about the academic world? How about Robert Caro.. people talk about him as the ultimate writer on LBJ… you ask him when he’s going to get a book done.. he tells you “it’ll be done when its done.”
    All these things,by the way, also relate to psychology types.. which is something that has a lot of value in the realm of business management.. and one of the biggest issues.. is we often see things through the perspective of our own psychology type.. with it’s prejudices..
    So what I would say is that really you need to embrace a plurality of approaches… to find the virtues and vices of different approaches and try and put them together in way that.. makes the great greater, and the vice parts… so that that they don’t impact things negatively.

  3. So true… I remember chatting about this very topic with you on one of our car rides and you talked about how one could spend 20 years on a single painting, but it’s deadlines like gallery openings that help keep us prolific. The quest for perfection can often stifle growth when it impedes regular output.
    The quality versus productivity debate is always interesting, and while you’d think industry creatives are more deadline-oriented than, say, non-profit artists, I’m often surprised at how many advertisers & marketers loathe a hard deadline. And, conversely, how many artists get their grants in on time 🙂
    I’m one of those agency peeps that loves and embraces a deadline: without one, I can’t wrap a big bow on a project and kiss it goodbye! Elisabeth Bucci, a wise PM who spoke at Twist Image for Montreal Girl Geeks last November, told us a simple truth: the difference between a project and a process is that a project has a clear beginning, middle and an end. If it doesn’t have a deadline, it’s a process (e.g. cooking dinner for my family every night) NOT a project (e.g. Thanksgiving turkey dinner for 20). Therein lies an important observation: the very act of anticipating an end allows us to visualize and achieve it with greater ease.
    In fact, I often jedi mind-trick myself to get going: I only finished writing and producing a play by registering for the Fringe festival and unplugging everything on the final withdrawal (with full refund) date – once that “point of no return” passed, I felt that impetus, that great leap forward, to deliver – and I did. So finally I broke my “it has to be perfect” cycle of unproductivity! Because I had commitment (don’t want to lose my $$$) and a tight, immovable fixed end date.
    Deadlines not only help motivate us, they help us craft a narrative, kill our darlings, move on to bigger and brighter things… They give us closure, peace, milestones to celebrate, bookmarks to our lives: with each comes the promise of something new and shiny in its wake.
    The end – I gave myself a deadline to get out of the office 😉

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