Are You Working Forward Or Backward?

Carl Pullein
4 min readJun 2, 2021


One of the hardest parts of becoming more productive is knowing where your priority tasks are. These are not always obvious. Often we will treat the loudest as a priority because we are being chased by people in power — your boss or your customer — yet often, these tasks are not priorities in the sense that they move a project or a goal forward. More often than not, these are just information requests.

One way of identifying your high-priority tasks is to look at your tasks as either being forward or backwards looking. Where do you spend the majority of your time? Working backwards or forward?

Doing backwards-looking work

Working backwards means you spend a lot of time responding to emails, cleaning up mistakes and errors, reviewing and tidying up your system — activities that do not advance projects or goals. Admin, status meetings, responding to information requests, and other work that involves looking backwards are all types of work that do nothing to move projects forward.

There are instances where knowing what has been done and where you currently are on a project or goal can be helpful, but spending too much time in this area will not advance anything. You want to be aware of how much time you spend in this area because that knowledge will help you to modify and adjust your approach.

Doing forward-looking work

Working forward means you spend time moving projects forward. You can do this by allocating time each day to spend on these tasks, negotiating a deal, writing a proposal, arranging a sales call, preparing a court case or painting a picture.

It’s your forward-moving tasks that are the priority on your task list. Your backwards-looking tasks should be relegated to a block of time later in the day once your forward-moving tasks are complete.

You can do this by applying the 2+8 Prioritisation Method. This is where you select your two objectives for the day — the two tasks you decide must be done, no matter what then your eight “should do” tasks which you will do everything you can to complete, but it would not be the end of the world if you don’t. If you cannot complete these, you can reschedule them for some other time in the week.

When you plan out your 2+8 for the day, you want to make sure these tasks are your forward-moving tasks. Avoid putting anything on there that does not move either a project or a goal forward.

When backwards tasks dominate and take priority on your daily task list, you create more low-priority work for yourself. The more time you spend not working on moving projects and goals forward, the further behind you fall. You then require more meetings and emails to find out why you are behind. It’s these backwards-looking tasks that create overwhelm and stress.

You want to avoid eliminating your backwards-looking tasks completely. Some are helpful. For instance, when you are doing your weekly planning session, you need to know what has been done and what needs to be done. By its nature, a weekly planning session is going to be a bit of backwards and forward-looking. You could argue the same for your daily planning sessions.

But if you are doing your planning sessions correctly, a weekly session should only take you twenty to thirty minutes and a daily session, ten to fifteen minutes.

The same goes for responding to your email and messages. While these tasks are essentially backwards-looking, it is important to answer questions and deal with requests. However, if you spend a large part of your day dealing with your mail and messages, you need to look at this and look at ways of reducing the time spent here.

You are never going to eliminate your backwards-looking tasks completely; some of them are important. However, knowing where your work time is spent will help you make sure you are spending time on the right work — work that will move you forward.

It’s about creating the right balance. If you are working 70 to 80 per cent of your time on your forward-looking tasks, you will find you complete a lot more and feel you are making progress each day. If the ratio is reversed, and you are spending 70 to 80 per cent of your time working on your backwards-looking tasks, you will find you are not making enough progress on projects and goals. That’s when you need to make a few adjustments to the way you prioritise your work.

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Carl Pullein

I help people learn to manage their lives and time better so they can experience joy and build a life they are truly proud of.