When Mamie, a 12th grader, has a long-term project ahead of her, she starts by making a list of everything she needs to do to finish the assignment. At some point in the day, she takes out her calendar and writes out—by hand—what she needs to complete. “Every day I work on a different task or topic,” she said, crossing off the work when she’s through so she can see what’s remaining. She builds in extra time in case she’s underestimated how time-consuming a particular task might be and sets reminders to keep herself on schedule.
Like most successful students, she understands that she can’t float along and simply assume that she’ll get to the necessary work by accident. She recognizes that being purposeful about her assignments, by structuring her time and planning her schedule, is essential to tackling all her work—and allowing time for what she loves outside school. Decades of studies on planning support her instinctive approach: under the right circumstances, planning can enhance self-control, contribute to better school performance and help people achieve goals.
But according to a team of scholars at the University of Iowa who analyzed these studies, little research has been done to evaluate the effect of how people construct plans on the plan’s outcome—that is, how well the plan worked. The trio of investigators—Jooyoung Park, Fang-Chi Lu and William Hedgcock—conducted five separate studies with about 300 university students to find out.
They identified two principal methods of planning: the forward variety, where the planner pinpoints tasks closest chronologically to the present and moves forward toward the goal; and reverse planning, where the planner starts with the end goal and works backward from there. A reverse plan for a research paper, for example, would start with the due date, then determine when a first draft would have to be done, and before that when research would need to be completed, and so on, going backward to the present.
The researchers devised various studies with students who had real-life goals to grapple with. As a way to find out if planning order affected motivation, one study involving 44 undergraduates enrolled in a university course were divided into two groups and instructed to plan for an upcoming exam. Half planned forward, and the other backward, but all had to incorporate 15 identical activities related to exam preparation into their plan. The kinds of activities that might be included in exam preparation were “read chapter 7,” “read chapter 8,” “review articles,” “make a summary of notes,” and “review key concepts.”
Forward planners typically began the process by identifying what they needed to do before they could achieve their goals, and then slotted in those prep activities that were closest to the present—i.e., “read chapter 7”—and moving forward. Reverse planners typically began their plan with the activity that was furthest from the present and closest to the exam—i.e., “review key concepts”—and moved chronologically backwards from there. In the end, both forward and backward planners came up with very similar looking plans, Hedgcock said.
Other studies included students in different settings to assess how planning order affects motivation and actual academic performance, and to evaluate the role of goal complexity in planning. In all the studies, students were responsible for coming up with their own plans.
To their surprise, researchers discovered a marked difference in success between forward and backward planning. “Backward planning could change the actual outcome, student’s grades on an exam, in addition to motivation and perceptions,” Park said about their findings. This held true only when the goal was complex, Park added—say, a comprehensive final exam that required reviewing and integrating a lot of information, or a long-term research project that involved a sequence of related steps.
Even among the collection of students whose 15 exam-prep activities were identical, and whose plans looked alike, the results were striking. “The effects don’t seem to be driven by the plan itself,” Hedgcock said. “They seem to be driven by how the plan was constructed,” he added.
Reverse planning for challenging assignments is more effective than forward planning for a few reasons, the researchers noted. For one, it helps the planner consider critical steps and then identify likely obstacles—all from the point of view of having completed the goal, which sharpens clarity. “When visualizing the endpoint, things seem clearer and more positive,” said William Hedgcock. “If you start at the present, you could go this way or that way—it can be more negative,” he added, because of the multiple possible steps to be taken. Backward planning also kickstarts motivation at the time when inspiration lags most, during the middle of a goal pursuit. Finally, backward planning from an imaginary finished goal lessened the perception of time pressure.
These findings could have broad applications. Though the studies involved college kids, high school students would likely experience similar results, Hedgcock said. Also, while “complexity is in the eye of the beholder,” he said, a student who perceives an assignment to be complex might be more successful if she constructs a plan that starts with the end goal. “I have a four-and seven-year old, and figuring out what to wear to school every day is complex for them,” he said. Reverse planning might also help kids whose motivation often wilts, or who have lost track of what they’re trying to achieve, or who frequently feel strapped for time while working on tough projects. Though the studies did not look at different cohorts of kids, the finding suggests that children who struggle with executive function might benefit from this type of preparation.
The researchers were quick to point out the limits to their work. They hadn’t accounted for individual differences among the college students, which could play a role in outcomes. Their work consisted of just five studies, and included only university students. For simple goals, backward planning has no effect. “It’s something that should be examined further,” Hedgcock said.
Nevertheless, the results suggest that students (and adults) could improve their ability to achieve certain goals by adjusting how they plan for them. “It’s a powerful finding,” he said.