This is part of my series on How To Be A Good Person.

I want to walk you through the process that I follow to plan my day, and minimize stress and anxiety. It’s called Look forward and reason backward*.

It sounds way more complicated than it actually is. In a nutshell, I think of something I want to do or accomplish and then work backward to uncover all dependencies.

Example 1

Goal: Be ready Tuesday at 6:30 a.m. when my carpool arrives.

So I ask myself, What things need to happen for me to be ready at 6:30 a.m.? What dependencies are there, and how can I plan for them?

After much trial and error, I have a pretty good plan:

  • Tue. 6:30 a.m. — Ready to leave.
  • Tue. 5:15 a.m. — Wake up. Gives me 75 minutes to exercise and get ready.
  • Mon. 9:30 p.m. — Turn off lights and go to bed. This gives me nearly 8 hours of sleep, which helps me feel rested.
  • Mon. 9:05 p.m. — Dim the lights and read/listen to a book. (Bright light inhibits melatonin production, which prevents sleep.)
  • Mon. 9:00 p.m. — Make sure everything is ready for tomorrow e.g., decide what I’m wearing, plug my phone into its charger, double-check my alarm, etc. This quiets the part of my mind that worries and makes it possible for me to go to sleep at a reasonable time.
  • Mon. 8:00 p.m. — Turn down the thermostat. I sleep better when it’s cold.
  • Mon. 7:20 p.m. — Unwind by watching a tv show or a movie. Or read a book. If I don’t unwind, I won’t go to sleep before 11:00 p.m. and I’ll have stressful dreams.
  • Mon. 6:00 p.m. — Done with dinner. Eating late disrupts my sleep.
  • Mon. 5:10 p.m. — Finish work for the day (from my home office). Pack my work laptop, notepad, and favorite pens in my messenger bag. Put bag by the front door.

Doing this sounds simple, in theory. But it takes discipline and practice to master. The hardest part is having to say, No, to a myriad of things: staying up late, working late, ignoring my alarm at 5:15 a.m., checking email or social media first thing in the morning (it’s a time-sink!), etc.

But planning this way enables me to accomplish my goal, be ready at 6:30 a.m., without filling my anxiety jar with marbles.

Example 2

Goal: My family of four catches a 7 a.m. flight.

Our plan looks something like:

  • Mon. 7:00 a.m. — Plane takes off.
  • Mon. 6:30 a.m. — Board plane.
  • Mon. 5:30 a.m. — Enter airport lobby. Gives us 60 minutes to check bags & car-seat, go through security, find our gate, have a meltdown, etc.
  • Mon. 5:10 a.m. — Arrive at airport. Gives us 20 minutes to park and take the shuttle.
  • Mon. 4:40 a.m. — Leave house. Gives us 30 minutes drive to the airport.
  • Mon. 4:20 a.m. — Brynn and I are ready to go. We wake the kids. They have 20 minutes to use the bathroom, get dressed, get a drink, and have a minor meltdown. Brynn and I divide & conquer: she supervises (and consoles as needed!) our daughter; I do the same for our son.
  • Mon. 4:00 a.m. — Brynn and I get up. Get dressed. Pack my pillow in my suitcase. Put suitcases and backpack in the car.
  • Sun. 8:30 p.m. — Brynn and I go to bed.
  • Sun. 7:30 p.m. — Everything packed. Review the master checklist.
  • Sun. 5:30 p.m. — Laundry is folded. Start packing.
  • . . .

There are six things about this plan that keep my anxiety low:

1. There’s extra time built into several steps. For example, we don’t need to be in the airport lobby 90 minutes before departure, but this buffer gives us wiggle room for unexpected events. Like, when we miss the highway exit and spend 20 minutes backtracking, or when our kids have multiple meltdowns because they’re tired and wipe snot on each others’ pinky fingers.

2. I can push back on the anxious part of myself and tell it to shut up! because things are going according to schedule, and everything will be just fine.

3. I get 7.5 hours of sleep even though I’m getting up at the buttcrack of dawn. The only thing worse than traveling with irritable kids is feeling tired and anxious while traveling with irritable kids.

4. I plan for my kids to be cranky, sluggish, and have an occasional meltdown when they get up at 4:20 a.m. To be clear, I don’t want these things to happen, but I have realistic expectations about what will happen. So when one of them cries at the airport because we didn’t bring their preferred flavor of Nutri-grain bar, I can look at my watch, and jokingly say, Yup, right on time.

5. I prepare as much as I can the day before when there’s time to handle hiccups and unforeseen events. Like when I have to make an unexpected trip to Walmart to buy two kids toothbrushes because the old ones wound up face down, floating in the toilet.

6. Brynn and I create a master checklist for everything we’re packing, which lessens the fear that we will forget something. The checklist includes:

  • Medications.
  • Bathroom stuff.
  • Empty water bottles.
  • Proper identification.
  • Car-seat and booster seat for kids.
  • Electronics — our phones, tablet, their chargers, USB battery pack, and earbuds.
  • Backup eye-wear and associated cleaning supplies — all four of us have corrective lenses.
  • Clothing — street-wear, formal-wear for a wedding, swim-wear and towels for the beach, etc.
  • Papers — itinerary; confirmation printouts for hotel, car rental, and airline tickets. (We’re old-school!)
  • Travel Backpack — has a book for me, book for Brynn, coloring books and crayons, origami paper, snacks, tissues, and wet wipes.

Now, you may be thinking, This is a bit much. Is this all really necessary? And it may be unnecessary for you. But it’s incredibly helpful for me. I can travel, with two kids in tow, be on time, not forget important items, and not feel stressed out of my mind.

So, try it out: Next time you have some big event, reason backward through all the dependencies. Do this, and everything will go smoother, and life will be better.

Be well, my friend.

* For years, I followed this process without having a name for it. Not too long ago, I read A Spy’s Guide to Strategy by John Braddock. In that short volume, John lays out the process I use every day and gave it a name: Look forward and reason backward. So, thank you, John, for giving this a name and making it easier for me to explain to others.