Avoid the last minute panic.
Learn how to backwards schedule
January 2023 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

The paper and exam were weeks away. You had lots of time to get started — even to wait a day or so. But before you knew it, the due date was closing in on you fast. You found yourself scrambling to get it all done on time, and it was not your best work. During the final days, you were stressed out to the max. You promised yourself it would never happen again.

Scheduling and being better organized are routinely listed as among the most important skills that students would like to improve.  It’s not surprising either that one of the leading sources of stress for students is ‘not managing the workload.’ There are a number of strategies that can help students manage the workload, including storyboarding, using to-do lists, and making concrete action plans — including backwards scheduling.

What is backward scheduling?

The figure below illustrates the idea behind backwards scheduling. You will need a whiteboard or poster with at least four months on it — enough room for an entire semester. The idea is that you should be able to visualize every major deadline — test, exam, paper or assignment — on this one page. This bird’s eye view will help you see what’s coming up next week, what’s right around the corner, and which weeks are going to be very, very busy.

Step #1: Start with the deadlines.  The first step is to write down all your deadlines (e.g., when the papers get submitted).

Step #2: Breaking tasks into chunks. The next step is to break the task into smaller meaningful chunks (e.g., final draft, outline done, research done) and give each chunk its own deadline. See the figure below. It is always a good idea, when writing a paper, to have the final version of your paper ready four days before the actual deadline. Setting your own personal deadline four days before the assigned deadline will ensure that you are never, ever late — even if something comes up. It will also leave you time to just re-read and be sure what you have written is clear and free of grammatical and spelling errors.

For papers, the other chunks will include selecting a topic, doing the research, making an outline, and writing different sections. It may also involve checking in with the teaching assistant, instructor or prof.

For tests and exams, the other chunks will likely include finishing the readings, making flashcards, doing practice problems, meeting with classmates, etc.

Step #3: Reviewing the weeks. Once you have listed every deadline for every test, exam, paper or assignment on this one page, it will become very clear which weeks are going to be busy, painful, and perhaps even a potential nightmare. For those weeks that are overloaded, you may be able to spread out the smaller tasks or chunks, moving them ahead a week or so or back a few days. If you are not going to be able to spread things out, then you need to do other things to free up some time. That can include moving the day trip to the spa with friends to a different weekend, visiting parents or having guests another weekend, and cancelling your volunteer hours for that week.


The figure below illustrates the idea behind backwards scheduling. Start with the deadline (i.e., submit the paper) and then break the task into smaller meaningful chunks (e.g., final draft, outline done, research done). Keep in mind, this is just for one deadline. 

Start a semester schedule.

A semester schedule allows you to locate every due date and deadline for an entire semester in a single place. It is a critical part of staying on top of your work. There is no shortage of semester schedules. Chances are your school will sell them in the bookstore. You can also find a lot of different schedule templates online. Find one that has enough room for you to get everything written down. We have a basic template for you. Print it off, fill it out and then attach it to the bulletin board or wall of your room. 

Does backwards scheduling work?

Stress reduction: 
Research has shown that students who used backwards scheduling report feeling less stress while working towards their goal.1 There are several reasons why backwards scheduling can reduce your stress. First, breaking a big project into smaller steps makes everything more manageable. Thinking about writing an entire paper is stressful. In contrast, thinking about selecting a topic or doing research for a topic is much less overwhelming.

Increased motivation.
 As you knock off each chunk or element of a project, you’ll experience measurable progress, which will feel like a real accomplishment, which it is, and in turn, will motivate you to do more.

Greater success. 
 Spreading the entire project over a number of weeks (rather than rushing to get it all done in a few days) gives you more time to do more and results in higher levels of performance. Research studies have shown that students who use backwards scheduling set higher goals and actually perform better.  

Compared with forward planning, backward planning not only led to greater motivation, higher goal expectancy, and less time pressure but also resulted in better goal-relevant performance.

Park, Lu Hedgcock (2017)


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1Park, J., Lu, F.-C., & Hedgcock, W. M. (2017). Relative Effects of Forward and Backward Planning on Goal Pursuit. Psychological Science, 28(11), 1620–1630.

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