How to Use Reduce Procrastination: Reverse Engineering

In the real world, as in the classroom, there are often complex projects that are not as simple as a sheet of math problems that are due over the weekend. More often than not, projects have deadlines that are weeks, if not months, away. And we all know what happens when deadlines are far away.

One word: procrastination.

We all do it. As we get older, some of us manage our time better than others, but as Parkinson’s Law states, work fills the time it is allotted. In other words, the longer we have, the longer we take. Therefore, it is crucial as the pressures continue to mount on students throughout their academic and adult careers that they have an excellent go-to method for combatting procrastination. Not only is doing so essential for meeting basic academic standards, but it will also help students carve out more space in their schedules for the kind of creative and innovative thinking that will really set them apart as they grow. One of the best ways to do it? A little process called reverse engineering.

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons by Dana Lookadoo

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons by Dana Lookadoo

What is Reverse Engineering?

Reverse engineering is the process of taking a complete end product and disassembling it in order to learn how it was manufactured. Many engineers and industrial designers use this method to determine how products are put together and how they work.This method works because it helps us break down a whole product into separate smaller steps and processes that are easier to wrap our minds around.

We all know someone who did this as a kid. My brother, who is now a mechanical engineer, is an example. As a child, he took apart my dad’s cameras and computers in order to see what was inside. After breaking down many products (to my dad’s annoyance), he was able to see commonalities and grasp general ideas about how products worked. This method can be directly translated into setting goals in the classroom.

How To Reverse Engineer Long-Term Projects in the Classroom

1. Write down the end goal

end goal

The first step in using the Reverse Engineering method is to write down the end goal. It is crucial that goals are detailed and descriptive so that a clear vision is created in the mind.

Bad: I will finish the science project

Better: I will finish the science project by January 23

Best: I will finish the science project by January 23 by making sure that all reports are written, experiments are conducted, and research is thorough.

The more clearly we are able to list our goals, the easier it is to visualize, and ultimately obtain. Athletes like Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson use visualization to reach their goals.

2. Break the goal down to the smallest components

final goal

Next, list all the components that are necessary in any order that makes sense to you. This includes everything that is required to be turned in when the deadline arrives.

Continuing with the science project example in Step 1, the Individual Components List will look something like this:

  • Experiment
    • Research how to safely conduct the experiment
    • Call lab to make an appointment
    • Buy equipment necessary to conduct experiment
    • Conduct experiment
    • Keep track of experiment results, including time, changes, etc.
  • Report
    • Research experiment conditions
    • Write first draft of report
    • Get first drafted proofread
    • Revise
    • Write bibliography and make sure citing is correct

Notice how there are sections that have subsections. This is an effective way of breaking projects down into more digestible pieces.

3. Forecast the time required per task


Some people skip over this very important step when setting their goals. Taking the little extra time it requires to complete it will make your life considerably easier down the road.

If the project is relatively large, then break the tasks down into days. On the other hand, if the project is relatively small, then break the tasks down into hours. Of course, these are estimates and that fact should be considered as well. A wise professor of mine had a rule for setting goals:

If you have done a similar task before, double the time you think it will take.

If you have never done a similar task, triple the time you think it will take.

This rule may be helpful to your students. Not surprisingly, people often overestimate their ability to finish tasks on time. This may be especially true for students who have not had as much experience with goal-setting.

4. Set Interval Deadlines


Using the results from the three steps above (end goal, smallest components list, forecasted time), it is time to set Interval Deadlines. Interval deadlines are the step-by-step deadlines that occur before the final official deadline. Done correctly, the work will be spread out evenly so that your students are not overwhelmed in the last week leading up to the final deadline.

It is helpful to do this final step with a calendar or planner so that students are able to see how much time they have — a powerful motivating factor. Have your class take each component and assign a deadline to each one. Some teachers set deadlines for students, but giving students the ability to schedule their own deadlines can be helpful in making the idea of goal-setting stick.

Time to Work

That is it! Once the final step is complete, it is time to act.

Reverse engineering is a handy tool to have that will help your students not only find success in the classroom, but once they get out of school as well.

To Review:

  • First, have your students clearly visualize their end goal.
  • Second, make sure they write each and every component down so that they understand what it will take to finish the project.
  • Third, have students estimate the amount of time needed to complete each component.
  • Finally, have them set interval deadlines that lead up to the final deadline set by you.

Reverse engineering for goal setting is a great method that holds your students accountable for their own work schedule and success, and assists them in lessening stress by completing work on time.



1 Comment

  1. Sylvia Kwan

    March 1, 2015 at 4:16 am

    Dustin, you have great practical ideas in both articles on procrastination that you have written this month. You might also wish to read the book “Not Now, Maybe Later” by Joanne Foster. She provides compelling insight, compassion and skill needed to guide and nurture children. It is a fantastic read for those wishing to understand procrastinators and it provides practical ideas for students to overcome their challenges and thrive in this fast-paced society.