• Shayna Sheinfeld, Ph.D.

Alleviating the Stress of Deadlines with Backwards Planning

I was talking with a client* recently about all the stress that they are dealing with: a couple major deadlines and yearly review coming up within the next 45 days. They told me "I can deal with the day-to-day tasks, and know that for that day I'm making progress on at least one thing. But whenever I take a step back to look at the bigger picture, or take a breath and remember everything else I should be doing, I freeze. My stress levels are through the roof and I'm not being a good friend, colleague, partner, or parent."

This level of overwhelm affects all of us at different times of the year. For some, it's the April crunch of the end-of-term, end-of-year committee meetings, our kids' extra curricular schedules, etc. For others it might be the lead up to the board of trustees meeting, tenure decisions, dissertation submission/defense date, job market timelines — and these often don't account for our lives outside of academia.

It's time to take a step back, pull out your favorite writing utensil and writing surface, and sketch out a map of your upcoming deadlines. For this assignment, use backwards planning. Backwards planning is a design technique that has your start at the conclusion or desired outcome, then work backwards to develop the actions that are needed to reach the outcome. Like backwards course planning, itself a subset of backwards planning, using this technique allows you to focus your actions on the conclusion. In other words, you will set up the days remaining until your deadline(s) with #SMART tasks that are doable and that prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.

How to create your plan:

  1. Pull out your favorite writing utensil and writing surface. Don't spend too long dwelling over what you need to do this "right" — ultimately it does not matter what you use as long as you can keep the results in a place of high visibility.

  2. Note the end goal.

  3. Establish the steps you need to take in order to reach that end goal, working backwards. For instance, if you are writing an article, the last thing you will need to do is submit it. Before that, you will want to allow yourself the time to read through it one last time. Make a list of these steps in the order you will need to do them.

  4. Plan them out on a calendar, allowing for the time for your other responsibilities, such as teaching prep/grading, a visit from your parents, or another deadline such as a job application. For some of these, you should block time in your plan to allow you to address these without excess stress.

  5. Get started! Once you have committed your plan on paper/calendar, try to stick to it. I recommend leaving a little extra time for unexpected things to come up...because they always do.

It may feel counter-intuitive to spend the time creating a plan during this crunch time, but it will make you feel less stressed when you finish it. And instead of feeling overwhelm by the scope of what needs to be done, it allows you to focus on the next small task—which is doable—while also knowing in the back of your mind you are working toward that desired end result.


*Client provided permission for me to write about this conversation.

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