How to PLAN an assignment the SMART way

How to PLAN an assignment the SMART way

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

If there’s one thing you need to know at university, it is how to plan an assignment. This article will walk you through a smart approach that will make essay writing almost effortless. It’s the first in a series of articles on productivity and time management. You can read the others here and here.

The smart way to plan your assignments

It can be hard to juggle all the responsibilities that come with being at university. Studying, cooking, eating, cleaning, shopping, socialising, exercising, relaxing, and sleeping all take time and there are only so many hours in the day.

If you are not smart with your time, it is easy to fall behind with important tasks, which can lead to stress and other negative consequences.

To succeed at university you need to manage your time well. Let’s take a look at a technique for staying on top of your coursework without pulling all-nighters so your stress levels stay low and you still have time to have some fun.

Reverse-engineer the outcome

Common sense suggests that to be productive, we need to get started on a task as soon as possible and begin at the beginning. But there’s a better way.

To study efficiently, don’t dive straight in and start working on a course assignment or project straight away. Instead, start by taking a step back, identifying what the final outcome is, and coming up with a plan to get there.

Whether you are working on an essay, a presentation, or preparing for a seminar discussion, there will be some specific criteria you have to hit to complete the assignment and make the grade. Stepping back gives you an opportunity to plan your attack and increase your chances of success.

This article is going to walk you through how to write an essay using a planning process called reverse-engineering. If you want to know how to plan an assignment effectively, this is a critical concept to understand. It will help you to avoid wasting time on unnecessary work which takes you away from your final goal.

In short, reverse engineering means starting at the end to clearly define what goal you want to achieve, then working backwards to plan how to get there.

The reason we do this backwards rather than forwards is that it goes us clarity of what we are working towards. Also, we are less likely to miss anything out because we visualise what we need to end up with before we do any work.

Here’s what the reverse-engineering process looks like in practice, using the example of a 3,000-word essay with a two-week deadline:

  1. Working backwards from your final objective, write down a list of all the stages that need to occur, in reverse order, to get to the final outcome from where you are now. For our essay, this list might be as simple as:
  • END GOAL: Finalise, format and submit the essay
  • Proof-read and edit the essay to meet the word count
  • Write the essay
  • STARTING POINT: Research the essay topic

Now, flip the order of this list so that the stages are in the correct order you will tackle them in. We’re going to write an action plan using each stage as a subheading.

Underneath each subheading, write down every task you need to do in order to complete that particular stage. Estimate how long each task will take. Here’s an example using our 3,000 essay assignment:

Research the essay topic (7 days)

  • Identify and gather source material (1 day)
  • Read / watch source material and make notes (3 days)
  • Organise notes, looking for any gaps in the research (0.5 days)
  • Identify source material that fills these gaps (0.5 days)
  • Read / watch source material and make notes (1.5 days)
  • Identify the findings or main arguments from your research (0.5 days)

Write the essay (3 days)

  • Make an essay outline in bulleted list form with subheadings for each section. Put related topics together and organise the structure of your outline so that each point flows logically to the next and supports your main arguments in a way that builds to your conclusion. This will give you a roadmap that makes your essay easier to write (0.5 days)
  • Look over your research notes and identify which ones support each of the points in your essay. Make a note of them in your essay outline so it is easy to find the relevant source material when you write your essay (0.5 days)
  • Write the first draft of your essay. This should just be a case of expanding on the bulleted points in your outline and referencing your source material. Keep an eye on word count but don’t worry too much about hitting it exactly at this stage. (2 days)

Proof-read and edit the essay (2 days)

  • Once your first draft is finished, proof-read and edit your essay. Look for mistakes and sections that are unclear or weakly phrased. Use a tool like Grammarly to edit and tighten up your writing. Focus on clear language, improving your arguments, and getting closer to the final word count. (1 day)

Finalise, format and submit the essay (1 day)

  • Proof-read your essay one last time and make any final tweaks. If you plan to meet with some kind of study advisor to check through your work, do so before completing this stage. (0.5 days)
  • Add references and ensure the essay is formatted and presented as instructed before submitting it. (0.5 days)

The above example is a very simple walkthrough of how to use reverse engineering to plan an assignment. Note that only three days are spent writing your essay, one of which is planning the outline. The rest is spent researching, planning, and finalising it.

Two days may not seem like a lot of time to write a draft essay, but here’s the beauty of this technique. You already have your research and essay outline in place.

Writing the essay is now just a process of expanding the bullet points in your outline by cutting and pasting your research notes and corresponding references to the relevant place. You will have to rewrite them to make them flow in the format of an essay, but all your hard work was done in the previous week when you did your research and planning. Writing the essay will be almost automatic.

Projects that are more complex than an essay will require more than three headings, but you get the idea. You can adapt this process for how to plan an assignment to fit your personal workflow and the specific project you are working on.

Why this works

The beauty of this approach is that it gives you a framework for how to plan an assignment that shows every task required to achieve your final outcome. It also clarifies the order to do them in, and how long they should take. All you have to do is work your way through each task on your list in order. This makes projects much simpler to navigate than diving straight in.

The timeline aspect is really important, so don’t skip it when you make your task list. It will help you to manage your time and identify if you are falling behind schedule, so you can get back on track quickly and hit your deadline.

Breaking down large tasks into smaller sub-tasks like this helps you focus and avoid procrastination so you can hit your goals quickly and efficiently. It works on most types of projects, regardless of their complexity, and makes them less daunting and easier to navigate.

Reverse-engineering is the definition of working smart and hugely increases your chances of success. Try it for your next assignment or with any project where you get stuck or don’t know where to start.

Looking for more productivity and time-management tips? See this article.