What is your goal this year? Travel more? Search for a new job? Get your kid into college? Make changes to your business? Tackle a home renovation project?  Are you starting to plan yet? Let me propose that you approach it backwards. 

manage time by working backwards from your big deadlines


Organized people often start the plan for big projects from the deadline and backwards into the current timeframe.

It’s Hard to See Time

Those with raging ADHD tell me that planning is hard and calendars are useless to them…until they learn to “see” time.If this is you, don’t despair. This is something you CAN learn!

Any calendar can tell you the date. When you turn a regular calendar into a PLANNER, well, that’s when the organizing magic kicks in. And you don’t need to buy anything new to start today.

Recently I was working with a client to schedule 5 big projects into a 4-period year. She’s already halfway through the year and just finished the 2nd project, so now she’s got to cram the 3 remaining projects into 2 remaining periods. Working together, we started at the end in order to work our way backwards.

In this case, we have an end of the year date, or deadline. We backed up the deadline by a couple of days because there are always surprise end-of-year activities. Then we estimated the time needed for the last project, an unknown right now, but we estimate will take about 6 weeks. The penultimate project (that’s one of my favorite words) will take about 9 weeks plus a week of vacation. That left only 5 weeks for the current project, which is scheduled to take roughly 6 weeks. The plan looked roughly a week short, but isn’t it better to see that today — when we can still make adjustments — than to get caught flat-footed and frazzled at the end of the year?

Backwards planning is the way to go. Sure, the math might work out the same. After all, 6+9+5 is the same at 5+9+6. But something happens when you back into today from your deadline. Time gets a lot more crisp.

People are Bad at Estimating Time

Research shows that people are universally bad at estimating time. We over-estimate the amount of time it will take for tasks we consider hard or unpleasant. We under-estimate the amount of time for fun tasks or events.

Add to that, many people chafe against deadlines that other people set, because we don’t like being told what to do. They avoid setting their own deadlines because people generally don’t like to make decisions and close off their options.

By setting your line in the sand, so to speak, and putting a deadline down on paper, you create a pocket of time, and you can manage that finite pocket of time.

If you try to manage your big projects linearly from today into the future, you often just keep moving your deadlines forward into someday, which is definitely not a date on the calendar.

Whatever big task is in front of you this year, use this approach that certified project managers, pro organizers like me, and organized people in general use every day.

Pick a date in the future for your big task, evaluate that pocket of time between now and then, work your way backwards to assign incremental milestones, and manage individual tasks to those intermediate timeframes.

Work Backwards from Your Big Goals

How does this work in real life?

Travel more? Ask for the time off this week, which becomes your deadline. Then pick your destination and start planning your trip.

Search for a new job? Pick a date that you’d like to move on, even if it feels a bit out there. Block time on your calendar to close up your current job’s projects, interview, maybe move, and put your resume together…all working backwards. It’ll seem like you can’t possibly have enough time to get it all done, but that’s kind of the point. You need to re-arrange or possibly eliminate some things out of today’s schedule to make room for the new activities.

Get your kid into college? High schoolers make their final choice by spring of senior year, but the financial process starts fall of their junior year, and the exploration process starts in their sophomore year. Yes, it really does go by fast, and writing it down on paper, working backwards, will help everyone involved.

Make changes to your business? Your day is already packed, so give yourself a deadline in the future, and mark out blocks of time now so that you have time to make those big changes, so you aren’t always saying, “Next week, life will be less crazy,” when that just never happens.

Tackle a home renovation project? Your contractor needs to know when you want to be done, so they can tell when they must get started. You’ll have to arrange your funds together for the project before you can start, and that may mean weeks of mortgage application. You’ll need to make product choices, and you might need to make other accommodations, like temporary living arrangements. Work backwards.

This is one of the skills that I work with executive coaching clients to help them be ready for big opportunities, and close in on important milestones. If working together with coaching will help you to land your big goals this year, please get in touch.