Tools for getting started

Backwards Planning

Estimated read time:
Tackling a larger written project or writing in a new style or format can feel daunting. Set yourself up for success by planning out all the stages of writing - or creating a non-written project - starting with your end goals and working backwards.

Backwards planning takes forward-thinking. If you’re new to backwards planning, we have outlined some of the steps you can customize to use when thinking about your mentorship plan and final project. You’ll begin by outlining your ultimate goals, namely what you want to achieve/experience during your Hugo mentorship. Then you’ll consider what you want your final project to look like, given your goals and interests. Finally, you and your mentor will map out the interim drafting and editing goals that will get you from start to finish in the time you’ve allotted for your project.  While many of these suggestions are specifically for written projects, they apply to other final projects as well.

Start with your ultimate goals

By now you have filled out your Hugo application, and you likely have discussed some of your goals and objectives with your Program Coach, your parents, your guidance counselor, and/or your mentor. If you’d like to add additional goals to the ones you listed on your Hugo application, consider using SMART goals, as outlined in  this worksheet created by UC San Diego.

Check that your proposed final project satisfies those goals

If one of your goals is to learn how to write an academic research paper, then proposing to write a research proposal that you then create slides for and present to your science teacher isn’t going to satisfy that goal. Likewise, if your application mentioned that you’re prioritizing learning more about possible career options, you probably won’t want to spend all of your time writing up transcripts to turn into podcasts.

Cross check that your goals match the final project you’re planning for. If you aren’t sure if your final project will meet your learning goals, ask your Program Coach, counselor, parents, or mentor for advice.

Create a list of the steps needed to complete your project

Depending on the style of your chosen final project, your mentor may already have a list and proposed schedule for you, especially if they specialize in a specific type of project that you’re interested in (such as an op-ed, academic research paper, blog, or policy brief). If your mentor does not provide you with specific steps or sections needed for your project, you can come up with a list on your own or ask for guidance from your Program Coach or mentor.  

Next to each step, you should write down an estimate of how many hours you think it will take for you to complete that stage. Take that number of hours, and multiply it by 1.2 to get a realistic estimate (this step is known as “adding contingency,” and gives you some wiggle room if you run into a problem, or have to redo or rethink some of your logic). Here’s an example of what it might look like if you were compiling a list of steps to write an op-ed:

Once you have your list created, you should have your parents, counselor, mentor, and/or Program Coach check your time estimates so they can catch any mistakes you might have made.

Map out your tasks/steps with your schedule

Now you are ready to start working on your project schedule with your Program Coach and mentor. If there are any deadlines that outside parties have, make sure to list those out on your calendar, along with any black-out dates you may have (e.g. maybe you want to block off the week before your ACT so you can focus on that goal, or maybe you’re going on a family vacation where you won’t have access to a computer or internet).

Starting with your latest deadline (the deadline farthest in the future), place your final goal on that date. For example, if you want to submit an article for publication, and the magazine only accepts submissions 3 times a year, you would want to anchor your final goal of submitting the article to the submission deadline. Since you need to know these deadlines, it is important to know where/how you want to share your written project before you begin. For detailed instructions on how to do this, please refer to our “ Choosing Your Audience” guide.

Working your way backwards in time, and using your time estimates from your list and your particular work pace, map out each task on your calendar. If you have a very busy period due to school work or other commitments or are on vacation and won’t be able to work you can create a black-out period and block off select days. Pretend those days don’t exist as you count backwards on your days. In the example below we’ve mapped out some of the steps from an imaginary publication deadline of January 31:

In this case, we are using the time estimates from the task/steps list we made. Notice that we have added a few days for edits and feedback, since our mentor will need time to read and submit edits to us as well. You will want to ask your mentor how much time you should add to each stage so they have time to give you feedback that works with their schedule/black-out dates.

If we continue to work backwards, our schedule for December might look something like this:

Using the list in the example above, and assuming that on average we can work on the project for a half hour a day (this is just an example, your available time may be different), count backwards on these sample calendars and see if you would write out the schedule as we have. You can even break down tasks into smaller tasks with additional deadlines if you feel like you need that additional structure; in this example we might split out time for writing the “solutions” section of the op-ed to three days to write explanations of the solution, and 4 days to draft justifications that support your proposed solution.

From here you keep working backwards, mapping out your deadlines for November, then October. If there are steps you need to take that weren’t on your list, such as background research, you’ll add those to the calendar as well.

Stay flexible

As you progress through your mentorship, your schedule can (and probably will) change as your interests and attention levels fluctuate. If you are feeling overwhelmed, you should always immediately let your mentor and/or Program Coach know so they can help you adjust your schedule or goals. Changing your plan is not a failure–it happens all the time in the “real world” of professionals! Learning to adapt to changing circumstances is a useful skill that you will use in college and throughout your life.

Still have questions about backwards planning for your final project? Your mentor and Program Coach are there to help–reach out to work on your schedule with their guidance.

Download PDF version of this resource
Hugo Mentors Logo