Think forwards, plan backwards

When we think about achieving our professional or personal goals, we tend to start where we are now and plan ahead. We decide what we’re going to do and where we want to be in three, six or twelve months’ time. But if we have a specific goal that we want to achieve, we can often benefit from doing things the other way around. From starting where we want to be and planning backwards.

When we set goals, we create a vision of our future selves. Our goals might involve professional advancement, personal development or an aspiration for our family or other relationships. With our goals in mind, we then decide what action we’re going to take towards achieving them. We may even establish interim goals, so that we can check we’re on the right track. Then we set off.

This approach works well enough for straightforward goals where we have a good understanding of what we need to do to achieve them. It’s like going on a walk where you can see the whole route across the countryside ahead of you. All you need to do is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. But for more complex goals, where we can’t see a clear path to achieving them, we sometimes need to do things differently.

This is where the whole ‘think forwards, plan backwards’ idea comes into play.

We start by setting a clear goal. By creating a compelling vision of what we want to achieve. This is important whatever approach we take, because if we don’t know where we want to end up, the chances of us getting there are somewhat remote. A compelling vision of the future can also motivate us to keep going when things inevitably get a bit tough or when we need to make hard decisions.

Once we have our goal or vision, though, using the ‘think forwards, plan backwards’ approach we don’t think about how we’re going to get from here to there. We think about how we’re going to get from there to here. That is, we work backwards from our goal, to identify the milestones that we’ll need to reach as we work to achieve it.

This approach uses the same principles as prospective hindsight, which I’ve written about here, in that it allows us to focus on our future goals and to visualise what it will look like to achieve them. Or, rather, to have achieved them. It also helps us to discern much more effectively the interim stages that we’ll need to achieve on the path to achieving these goals.

A minor change in perspective, possibly, but it can unlock massive gains in the way we think about our goals and how we can achieve them.

I was going to set out a sort of worked example here, but goals are so personal that it’s difficult to come up with something that will resonate with everyone who reads this. So why not give it a try for yourself and see how you get on. Pick a goal, think forwards to create a vision of what it’ll look like to have achieved it, and then plan backwards to identify where you’ll need to be at key points on your path to turning your vision into reality. Starting closest to your goal and then working back to where you are now.

If you find yourself struggling, just drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do to help.

To summarise, then, the problem with the standard approach to goal setting is that the steps we take all too often don’t actually result in us achieving our goals. We get somewhere, but not always where we wanted to be. By thinking forward and planning backward, however, we have a much stronger focus on our vision for the future. And by working back from there to here, we are better able to plan how we’re going to achieve it.

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