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Backwards Planning: A Process for Goal Setting

It’s easy to get distracted. We all do. Checking emails, taking phone calls and texting about dinner plans can take up more time than you think, leaving less time for tackling what is on your personal or professional “to-do” list.

Staying on task is even harder if you’re earning a college degree. By 2025, nearly 10 million students age 25 and older are expected to be enrolled in college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Online degree programs make it convenient for adult learners to do it all – work, family, have a personal life and go back to school.

To achieve that goal requires good time management. Backwards planning can get you there.

Forward Thinking on Backwards Planning

Backwards or reverse planning involves starting with a task’s end state and working backwards. You identify the last step and second-to-last-step and so on, until you reach the beginning of the task.

Backwards planning helped U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jamal Roberson stay on track while earning his BA in Business Administration online at New England College.

Roberson, a Soldier, husband and father, juggled a lot while in school.

“I had to reevaluate my time management skills,” he says. “The technique that helped me the most is reverse planning. I learned reverse planning in the Army; it’s basically calculating all the time it takes to accomplish a task, so you make sure you can do what’s required,” Roberson said.

Using backwards planning to complete an assignment or prepare for an exam can help you identify crucial tasks by removing what is unnecessary, create a realistic structure, work at a pace that is comfortable for you and complete your goal on time.

5 Steps to Start Backwards Planning

  1. Get a calendar or planner.
  2. Write down the due date. Start at the end to go forward.
  3. Create action items or milestones. What goals need to be met in order to stay on track?
  4. Under each action item write down the time needed to accomplish it. How much time is required to complete each action item?
  5. Mark on the calendar the date that each item needs to be completed.

Infographic showing steps for backwards planning or reverse planning

Over time, you’ll discover what works best and gain a better idea of your pace. Backwards planning can keep you focused, prevent procrastination and decrease stress by leaving enough time to complete each task. It may seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day, but if you reimagine and rearrange your tasks, perhaps it can all fit in a way that won’t leave you overwhelmed.

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