Backwards Planning

The one thing I hate about my work is anxiety. I like the writing (when it happens); I like reading; I love thinking and talking about ideas; there really isn’t a part of my work that I don’t like, as long as I’m on top of it. What I hate more than anything is being afraid of not getting it done. While the feeling of producing something that isn’t good is  horrible, the feeling of not producing anything at all fills me with an existential anxiety.

The problem with this anxiety is that it results from perfectionism. It’s not that you don’t start working early enough; it’s that you can’t quite get to the point were you feel ready to write something good. So you continue reading and thinking and postpone the writing part day after day because you haven’t quite figured it out yet; you don’t quite know what to write; you think it just isn’t perfect. So you don’t start writing until it’s three days to the deadline and you have to write 6000 words (that is precisely what happened when I wrote my first dissertation). Suddenly, the deadline looms like a day at the gallows and perfection is really not an issue any more, all you want is to get it done. This is where writing slogans are born: “Don’t get it right, get it written”. The important bit is that you could have gotten it right-er if you had only gotten it written. “Writing is rewriting”, another great slogan.

So how do you get it written? By realising that you won’t get it perfect. Ever. Anyone who’s ever read the Old Testament knows that even God doesn’t get it right all the time (Leviticus and Numbers anyone? Awful prose, no content). There is always more to read, there is always more to think – that’s what’s so awesome about knowledge work: there is always more to know! You won’t ever be “ready”. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that when you start writing a couple of days before the deadline, you are reacting to inspiration. You are reacting to panic, which makes you begin to write, and once you begin to write, inspiration happens. Since the moment you start writing is always inherently wrong (since you will not have reached absolute knowledge), you might as well choose and own it. The best way I know to do that is backwards planning.

Begin at the end, at the things you already know: On this day in the future, I will hand in this amount of words. The more specific you can be, the better. You want as much of your plan to be fixed as possible because you want to view your plan as an accurate representation of your future, rather than as shit you made up. Once you’re clear on your deadline, put in the parts of construction beginning at the end. In my case: printing, proofreading, redrafting, writing a first draft, outlining, reading.

Then you can draw in the fixed-points. In my case,  the one thing that is absolutely fixed is the word limit: I have a word limit of 10.000-11.000 words and I know (because I know myself)  I can reliably do 500 words a day. Therefore I need 20 days of writing. I have calculated this; it as a fact. I have to start writing 21 days before my deadline to get it written.

Of course, I don’t only want to get it written, I’d also like to get it right-ish. So I schedule in some time for redrafting. I schedule it in from the very beginning because if I make the decision once I actually need it, it might be too late. Because my second draft uses material from my first draft, it is much harder to measure in reasonable units but past experiences (which I documented in order to know myself) indicate that for an essay of this length I am extremely unlikely to need more than two weeks of second-drafting. The great thing about planning to do real redrafting is that if you actually need it, you’ll not feel like a loser (after all, you planned for this) and if you don’t need the time, you’ll feel like a rockstar and get to use the time for awesome things instead.

At this point, I already know that I need three weeks of writing and two weeks of redrafting, which means I have to start writing consistently five weeks before the deadline BUT I also want time to proofread and print and a bit of buffer if something goes wrong. All this together adds up to a comfortable week. Ergo, I need to begin writing for real six weeks before the deadline. I know this; I calculated this; it is a fact.

Now I only have to determine how much time I want to do research and outlining. Because this is flexible I find it most difficult to plan. From past experience I know that two weeks will probably be just the right length: Long enough to get some thinking done, short enough to keep me alert (I have already worked on this area, so all I need is to gain focus). I now know that I must start doing proper reading eight weeks before the deadline. If I do this, I will get it written and I’ll have enough time to get it pretty right. If I don’t start reading at that time, I will feel uncomfortable to start writing on the appointed day. I know what I will lose if I don’t start writing on that day: a day of proof-reading. Being the queen of butcher’s apostrophe’s that I am, I really don’t want that.

This kind of backwards planning replaces vague suspicions (I think I should start writing soon) by concrete knowledge (I know I will start writing on Monday, 29 April). The more concrete a plan, the more likely you are to actually execute it. Additionally, you know you can do it because no single day in your plan requires a massive time commitment or entails a task beyond your abilities (it’s all tailored to what you can do). At the same time it is so vague that you can make the plan as soon as you get the task, regardless of interfering events.  It doesn’t even matter that I have to fly to Germany to celebrate my dad’s 50th birthday on 5 May, all I will need to do that day is write 500 words, which I can do in an hour. Even if those 500 words aren’t good, I can polish them later; the important thing is that I have them. Because I have them, I will not be anxious. While the first day of writing will be hard (I need to abandon the idea of perfection), the next day will be awesome (six weeks to the deadline and I already have 1000 words!) and with every day that passes (and every 500 words I gain) the sense of empowerment and control grows and anxiety diminishes. The best part, rather than being a nervous wreck in the three weeks before the deadline because I’m not sure if I’ll even finish, I’ll spend them in the knowledge that I have something that I can hand in right now and all I’m doing is making that better. While backwards planning will make it more likely that you produce polished work by ensuring you have time to polish, the more important aspect is that it will make the work more fun. You will reduce (even remove) the anxiety because you tame the deadline; it’s still there but unthreateningly it looms before you like a large weaving tool.

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About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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