Backward Planning: The Second Important Life Skill


You are young at any age if you are planning for tomorrow.

In my previous post I introduced the importance of habits and life skills that should be learned at an early age. And believe me, learning good habits is much easier and quicker when you are young. At the ripe age of 68 just trying to remember my limited French is a challenge, let alone learn a new language or a new skill.

And from my experience in both education and business, as well as daily life, there are a couple of life skills that are critical for success, no matter what the profession or occupation.  Last post I introduced the important life habit of Checklists.  Making a daily check list of important items to accomplish, reviewing it throughout the day and reviewing progress and lessons learned at the end of the day.  All of us, no matter what the age group, have hectic lives and multiple activities and commitments and the checklist is my number one success habit.

However, just because you have made a checklist doesn’t automatically spell success. You have to deliver on the items and “To Do’s” on your list.

Activity expands to fill the amount of time allotted.

And now comes the second important life skill: Backwards Planning.

Backward Planning

I was first introduced to Backward Planning by two former US Army Rangers I hired as part of my consulting company in the 1980s.  According to them, Backward Planning is the most effective tool to get a long-term task accomplished in a hectic, changing environment (kind of like most of our daily lives).

Backward planning lets you know when you need to get started, and also gives you timing points along the way to let you know if you need to adjust your plan in order to get ‘er done when you need to.

Backward Planning begins with the objective and the end date or time as fixed. Then you simply walk backwards in time and determine the actions, milestones and time frames required.

Here is simple military example:

ranger-patrolSuppose a Patrol had to be at a certain location ready to engage at 11pm. If the end time was at 11pm, a final reconnaissance of the arrival site needed to take place an hour beforehand. Given backward planning, reconnaissance should begin at 10pm.   Before that a small patrol base had to be set up in the area about 15 minutes before.  This means the patrol needed to be on location at 9:45pm.  It would take the patrol about three hours to get there from where they were currently located.  This meant leaving at 6:45pm.  It would take an hour to ready the equipment, fifteen minutes to eat, and three hours for mission planning. The patrol would start to get ready at 2:45pm.

We were mentally there and prepared long before we arrived.  ~US Army Ranger

The same process can be used for delivering a term paper.  Start with the subject and day and time to be handed in.  Calculate the time for reviewing, revising and spell checking the final draft, say 4 hours.  Step backwards again and calculate the size of the essay (number of words or pages) and how long it would take to write that, given 2-3 hours bursts of concentrated work.  Then determine the amount of research required (books and articles to be read, interviews, discussions, etc.), then step backwards again to determine your overall thesis and ideas you want to explore in your essay.  If all that is longer than the time frame you have, then adjust the times for research, writing, revising, etc. accordingly.

Backwards planning is the only way to deliver a quality product, on-time, without pulling an all-nighter, being horribly stressed and/or without compromising your true abilities.

If you have ever felt that there are not enough hours in a day to do everything you need to do, the habit of Backwards Planning will be a life saver for you.  You will actually be surprised at how much you can accomplish using this skill.  With a plan focused on the end deadline, you may find yourself getting more done each day than you usually accomplish in a week.  Not only will you be more productive, but achieving each goal will come much easier as Backwards Planning becomes a habit and a routine way of working.

Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. ~US ARMY moto

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to Backward Planning: The Second Important Life Skill

  1. Pingback: Opps! A Third Critical Life Skill: Effective Public Speaking | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

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