Plan Backwards from the Deadline

Suppose you have a paper due the last week of classes. You can plan to handle that paper in a few ways:

  • Closing your eyes and dealing with it the week before
  • Planning your next steps
  • OR, planning backwards from that deadline

How often do you miss your own deadlines? You’ll say to yourself, ahh, I have time, I can start researching this next week! But soon, the weeks close in, and you’re left cramming everything together at the last minute in your dining hall, with a large cup of joe.

 Next time you have an important project, try planning backwards from the deadline.

1) The process

Suppose my paper is due the last week of October. Then, I would plan to be mostly done with my paper the third week of October to allow for the ever important revising/editing process.  Knowing that writing the paper is the utterly hardest part, I give myself two weeks from that point to literally write that paper. This would take me up to the first week of October.

I would then give myself a week to refine a topic and create an outline: last week of September. Then finally, my research process will begin from the second week of September to the third week.

Quite simple, non?

2) Planning backwards cements the deadlines

Perhaps it’s a mental trick, but I find that planning backwards makes me truly understand why I have those mini deadlines for myself. It seems arbitrary to say at the beginning of the course, ah, I should research for two weeks.

However, once you understand how long the process takes after the research portion of the project, you realize how important it is to keep to that research deadline.

 3) Build in buffer time

Harvard is a crazy place. Events pop up, people ask you for help, and you don’t want to plan unrealistically.

For the super motivated, you might give yourself a month to write that paper I was talking about before, halving everything.

The problem with such a lean strategy is that you have very little wiggle room. It’s easy to crank out a paper when you’re under a lot of pressure and you’re ignoring everything else. But, the thing about Harvard is that you can’t be so myopic.

A while back, I mentioned that a minute of your time at the beginning is worth ten times that amount at the end.

Thus, beginning earlier, building in buffer time is better. You may realize that you don’t actually need to research for the full two weeks. Well, that’s fantastic! You can give yourself a break for a week while still being on schedule.

Just because you plan to give yourself more time, doesn’t mean it will take you all that time.  Which is good, because there’s a chance you’ll be ahead of the game.

4) Gain an understanding of how long it takes

If you’re unfamiliar with writing term papers, plan generously and take some time at the end to reflect how much of that time you actually needed.

It’s easy to think that you can be like your peer who pulls something out of nowhere in the last two weeks. But what you may not know is that she may have had taken a number of college classes in history in high school and is a history buff in general.

Knowing how long it takes you to do certain things will always, always be of use to you in the future. You never know where a Harvard professor might give that rare piece of extra credit.

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