It may seem a little counterintuitive, but to accomplish your goals, you might want to start at the end.
Those who plan backward—moving in reverse chronological order to evaluate all the steps required to achieve their goal—tend to be more focused, more motivated, and less stressed, says William Hedgcock, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who studied the effect. “Simply changing the way of constructing plans can produce different outcomes,” adds Jooyoung Park, assistant professor in the Department of Management at Peking University HSBC Business School.
When we set goals, we often become overly ambitious. But you’re not going to wake up tomorrow ready to run a marathon if you’ve never run a mile in your life, just like you’re not ready to cook a gourmet meal if you’ve never turned on a stove. Reverse planning allows your goals to evolve as you do, helps you break big projects into manageable steps, and makes it easier to plan for enough time in between steps so you that have a better chance of exceeding your expectations.
Ready to get ahead by planning in reverse? Here’s how to put a backward plan in place:
- Imagine the End
The first step is to visualize achieving your goal. What does it feel, smell, or sound like to be in this moment of having what you want? See yourself running a marathon, learning to bake, starting a book club, getting in shape, and so on. Picture it in as much detail as possible, using all of your senses.
“The process motivates action,” explains Madelyn Blair, Ph.D., an organizational psychologist who works regularly with businesses on leadership and development. “The body follows the brain,” she says. “If you have the end goal firmly in mind, the mind then works to achieve it. Our bodies work to make the ideas in the mind happen.” In other words, seeing our goals actualized—even if it’s only in our mind’s eye—makes it easier to stay focused when you actually take action.
- Take a Step Back
Next, map out the specific milestones you need to reach and identify where in your plan you have to be particularly energetic or creative to get the desired results. Start by thinking about what has to happen right before you achieve your goal. What final step will help propel you over the finish line? Get specific. Then, work back some more. What do you need to complete just before you get to that second-to-last task? And what step do you need to take to finish up that one before that? Continue on this way until you reach the beginning of the process.
For a helpful analogy, imagine that you’re planning a vacation. Let’s say your end goal is to be sitting poolside, fruity drink in hand. What has to happen before you can post up by the pool? You have to check in to the hotel. And before you can check in to the hotel, you have to book it and figure out how you’ll get there. Before you can plan your travel route, you have to know your destination and the dates. Once you reach the first milestone—where you are today—you’re ready to begin putting your plan into action.
- Prepare for Imperfection
There is no such thing as a perfect plan. Progress is rarely linear and goals evolve over time, but several studies conducted by Hedgcock and other researchers indicate that planning in reverse allows you to think through, prepare for, and sometimes avoid setbacks before they occur.
If you do hit an unexpected obstacle, don’t get discouraged. If you approach undesired outcomes with a growth mindset (where you believe you can adapt and change to reach your goals), you can learn from your mistakes. To shift into a growth mindset, use self-talk that praises progress over perfection, such as, “I deserve my own respect for trying my best,” or “I’m not a lost cause. I just need practice!” This takes shame and guilt out of the equation so you can focus on forging ahead.
Now, look out to the future: Your path is already illuminated. You know exactly what you need to do next to move toward your ultimate goal. All that’s left is for you to roll up your sleeves and dive in.
Polly Campbell is Portland-based author and speaker specializing in psychology, resilience, and wellness topics. She is the author of three books: How to Live an Awesome Life: How to Live Well. Do Good. Be Happy; Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People; and How to Reach Enlightenment. Tweet her @PLCampbell.