One of my favorite productivity strategies is “reverse engineering” my calendar. Which is to say, I start at the end and calculate backwards. I do this for big projects as well as for my daily schedule.
So, let’s say I want to send invitations to a dinner party for Friday, Feb. 22nd, I would want to have a final head count by the day before, so I’d put “check on RSVPs” on my calendar for the 21st. I would want to send the invitations two weeks before, so that means a note about a “trip to the post office” on the 8th, which means I need to have them all stamped and addressed by the 7th, which means I need to have a “get invitations printed” note on the 5th, which means I need to have the final guest list by the 29th of January. So now I know that on the 27th of January, I need to sit down and make a preliminary list of people I might want to invite, and I can schedule in some time to do that.
Making these notes in my calendar help keep me on track, and also to adjust if there are any unseen delays. I always build in a few “buffer” days, just in case.
For my daily schedule, I often write out my day in reverse. So, for example, if I have a meeting with Brett at 10am, my schedule for the morning might read:
10am – meet with Brett
9:50am – park
9:20am – drive to Brett’s
9:10am – check driving directions & traffic
8:10am – shower and dress
7:45am – tea
7am – wake & morning beach walk
And yes, I really do write it out almost every time, because the action of thinking backwards often prompts other useful thoughts like, “Do I have the notes for our meeting in my bag?” and “Does the car need gas?”
Thinking “backwards” through my schedule also reminds me to allow extra time for the things like finding parking that can eat away at my time and, if I fail to consider, will have me late and frazzled.
One night I took a chronically late girlfriend to dinner & the theatre for her birthday, and as we finished our coffee and strolled into the lobby, she remarked how refreshing it was to not be rushing in late, having missed the opening number and aggravated from caroming around parking garage in an all-fired rush.
“Yes,” I said, “I knew that if we wanted to be in our seats at 7:55pm we’d need to be leaving the restaurant by 7:45pm, which means we’d need to be here by 6:30pm, which is why I picked you up at 5:45pm.”
“But I was late getting dressed!” she laughed.
“I know,” I said, “If I’d thought that you would have been ready on time I would have picked you up at 6pm, but I figured you’d be running around ‘trying to put five pounds of sugar in a four-pound bag’ (as my grandmother would say) so I allowed an extra 15 minutes.”
She looked at me as though I were a magician.
The other great benefit to building my schedule backwards is that it necessitates a deadline. There is beauty and magic to deadlines. Deadlines inspire us to action, they set our wheels spinning and they let us know when we’re slacking off.
People often say to me, “Oh, I never get anything done until the last minute” and I am here to tell you, sweetheart, nobody gets anything done until the last minute.
But when you know what the last minute is, you know when you need to make your move. And if you find yourself NOT making your move, you can take a moment to analyze the reason why and take action. Are you just plain scared? Then call a reliable friend for encouragement. Are you lacking information? Spend ten minutes (only) on Internet research. Are you genuinely not interested in this goal? Great – cross the boring goal off your list and give yourself something juicier to work on.
Not assigning a deadline can mean that an idea just spins and spins inside of your mind, which is both demoralizing and unproductive. Setting a deadline and creating a work plan in reverse allows you to track your progress while keeping an eye on your prize.