Reverse Scheduling: A Productivity Hack That Works

How do you organize a space party? - You planet.

When you are scaling a company, the most precious commodity is time. It’s a daily challenge to be more productive and efficient. With a never-ending to-do list (especially in a scale-up where is no shortage of problems to solve) and a barrage of distractions, it can be difficult to stay focused and get everything done. Fortunately, there is a solution: reverse scheduling (sometimes called backward scheduling or backward planning). This is particularly powerful when you are going from 0 to 1 (exploring a new opportunity - I recommend Peter Thiel’s book on this if you haven’t read that already).

Reverse scheduling is a productivity hack where you work backwards from your deadline to prioritize tasks. By starting with the end in mind, you can create a roadmap for achieving the target and ensure that the time is spent judiciously.

Take the case with Elon Musk - he is known for his ambitious goals and tight deadlines. He is also a controversial character with certain views that I don’t agree with. However, he has used reverse scheduling to plan projects such as the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which required careful coordination of several complex tasks to ensure a successful launch. Despite lots of uncertainty and complexity, Musk managed to use this reverse scheduling effectively: by working backwards from the end goal, this enabled Musk to ruthlessly prioiritise the steps that needed to be taken to meet the deadline - he was then able to split the work into manageable phases with deadlines for each. The key idea is that you split into goal into milestones and repeat till you achieve each of those milestones. Starting with the end in mind gives you better perspective, clarity and focus.

Getting Started

The concept of reverse scheduling is super simple: start by setting a reasonable (read ambitious but achievable) deadline for each project, then work backwards to create a timeline of milestones to achieve the end goal. This allows you to visualise the big picture and stay on track to meet the goals.

One of the key benefits is that reverse scheduling helps you to stay focused on what is most important (ruthless prioritisation). By starting with the end in mind, you can prioritise tasks and allocate your time to the tasks that will have an impact on the end goal. This not only saves you time (and reduces unnecessary stress), but it also increases your chances of success.

Reverse scheduling can be applied to a variety of tasks and projects, both personal to professional. This method can also be implemented in sub-teams as a way of working - A typical area in software engineering where this is often applied very easily is testing and quality assurance (QA). Reverse scheduling can help you allocate the necessary resources and plan the testing and QA phases to ensure that the product meets the required quality standards.

You might be wondering what happens if something doesn’t work. Well, reverse scheduling allows you to take into account unexpected events. By working backwards from your deadline, you can plan for potential setbacks (hence the importance on having critical milestones).

Reverse scheduling is also a very powerful tool for motivation and accountability. This can help you to stay on track and can increase your sense of accomplishment as you cross items off your to-do list (gives you the dopamine hit you need).

Reverse scheduling requires discipline and focus. It is important to set aside dedicated time for planning and to stay organized, as this will increase your chances of success.

Despite its many benefits, reverse scheduling can be bad for your company/team if not used properly. The key is to be realistic and flexible, and to allow yourself the space to make adjustments as needed. For example, if you have a deadline for a work project, and you find that you are running behind, you may need to adjust your timeline or ask for help from a colleague. I briefly elaborate on this point below -

When & how not to use it

In some creative fields it may not be possible to work backward from a deadline. For example, Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Nights’ might have looked very different if reverse scheduling had been applied to the work. These types of projects often require a more fluid approach, with a focus on exploration and experimentation rather than meeting specific milestones.

And in some cases, a project may be so complex or highly technical that it is difficult to accurately estimate the time required for each task. This doesn’t mean that you cannot use reverse scheduling at all - remember the number of times the Falcon Heavy rockets failed! Here you reverse schedule each milestone rather than the whole project.

One thing you should never do is to use reverse scheduling to set unrealistic expectations and deadlines. You are setting your team up for failure and will have impact on their morale.

Try it

Reverse scheduling is a powerful productivity hack that can help you to make the most of your time and achieve your goals. Whether you are working on a personal or professional project, this technique can help you to stay focused, motivated, and on track. By starting with the end in mind, you can create a roadmap for achieving the end goals and can help you increase your chances of success.