If you open my journal, you’ll see a parade of entries for January 1st over the years. New Year’s Day has a way of compelling me to aspire to a more relevant future. But simply writing down objectives at the beginning of the year doesn’t work.
I discovered a planning technique in my last term of college that profoundly improved my ability to steadily accomplish goals.
I’d just finished a nightmarish string of all-nighters from the previous quarter because I’d misjudged what I could procrastinate. I sat down in my dorm room after the first day of class and arranged a short stack of syllabi on the desk in front of me.
What I Needed Was A Map
I pulled the calendar off the bulletin board and transferred the due dates for every major assignment from each class into the appropriate boxes.
Then I tried something new. I began with the last final exam and started working backwards. I estimated how much time I’d need to study the subject to get a good grade. Two days. I counted back two days on the calendar from the date of the exam, and wrote, “Start studying for exam Z.” Then I found the next to the last exam, and decided I needed two days to study for that one too. I counted back two more days on the calendar and wrote, “Start studying for exam Y.”
Next, I found a paper was due on the same day as those exams. I figured I needed a week to write it, so I continued counting backwards seven days from where I left off and wrote, “Start paper X.”
I kept working through the due dates this way, assigning myself start dates increasingly early in the schedule. By the time I was finished, I was supposed to start a paper in the first week that would be completed weeks before it was due at midterm. That seemed silly, but I decided to try following the plan.
This small exercise in planning allowed me to steadily plug away at my work in bite-sized, manageable chunks in a methodical execution of the map that I’d made. I walked at graduation a rested man, but I felt like kicking myself. I could have saved myself a lot of torture if I’d figured out that trick earlier.
Thankfully, the usefulness of the lesson didn’t end when college was over. It turns out you can reverse engineer any goal you want to accomplish and create your own map to follow.
What Have You Got To Lose?
Try working through these six steps on New Year’s Day instead of making a resolution that you know you’ll break.
1. Define a goal
2. Create a detailed list of what would have to change or be accomplished for the goal to be realized
3. Organize the list in chronological order based on a progression of prerequisites
4. Set an optimistic date for the goal to be achieved and write it on a calendar
5. Map the list starting from the last task on the list, and backward from the goal date on the calendar, estimating the span of time to accomplish each subtask
6. Diligently execute the scheduled tasks on the map and adjust assignments to reflect reality
Maybe you have a different method of ensuring that your life follows a relevant course. Please share it with us in the comments section.