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Productive Writer No. 14


Think Ahead and Plan Backwards


How do you work on and finish a project when the deadline is not looming? A project where you have many weeks, or months or even years, to finish? How do you schedule your work and your time to get it all done on time? Ironic, isn't it, when we have no imminent deadline, we tend to delay to the point we create anxiety for ourselves as the deadline closes in?


One very effective strategy when beginning a new project, or trying to finish a continuing one, is to think ahead and plan backwards. Identify the date by which you must absolutely complete and submit a project. Then work backwards. What do you want to be doing the day before a deadline? (I suggest relaxing and celebrating because you completed your writing and revising and submitted early!) What about the day before that? And the day before that? Work backwards, day by day if the deadline is soon. If you have more time, work backwards week by week to develop a schedule.


This tool helps you to know what your goals must be each day going forward. It also helps you to know if you are already running behind. (Yes, this is the scary part!) But it's much better to know, with six months remaining until your deadline, that you must work more quickly (by scheduling more writing sessions, or picking up your writing pace) rather than making this discovery with six days, or six hours, remaining and not being able to make up the time and work. (We've all been there, right?)


Below is an example of what a plan might look like for the eight months before graduation. This list shows steps to completing experimental research and dissertation. You choose a project, and make a list of whatever you need to do to complete it. Then think ahead and plan backwards to get it done and chart your path to completion. You've got this!



Task to do

Completed on [date]

May 28

Graduate with PhD!


May 5

Submit final copy to Graduate School


April 30

Submit revised copy to committee


April 15

Dissertation defense


April 1

Submit exam scheduling form to Graduate School


March 1

Submit reading copy to committee



Revise based on advisor feedback


Feb 1

Submit complete final draft to advisor


Jan 22

Write conclusion


Jan 15

Write introduction


Jan 8

Revise results chapter


Jan 1

Draft results chapter


Dec 22

Revise/expand methods chapter


Dec 15

Revise/expand lit review


Dec 8

Complete additional analysis


Dec 1

Review analysis results with advisor


Nov 22

Run analysis and draft tables for experiment 3


Nov 15

Run analysis and draft tables for experiment 2


Nov 3

Run analysis and draft tables for experiment 1


Nov 1

Draft list of tables and charts


Oct 31

Outline expanded lit review


Oct 30

Outline introduction


Oct 29

Meet with advisor to discuss completion plan and schedule


Oct 26

Review lab notebooks


Oct 25

Wrap up experiment 3




Jan Allen, Associate Dean

Academic and Student Affairs

Cornell Graduate School