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Backward Planning: Key to Accomplishing Your Goals

Mug with words "Go get 'em" next to notebook and pen, and plant.

Setting a lofty goal seems great, but then we ask ourselves, “How can I break this down into bite-sized daily tasks or actions?” Some of us write down our first few steps. A few of us keep going until we get to the end. Most of us, though, feel as if we’d stepped into quicksand. But what would happen if we did backward planning?

What is backward planning?

Unlike forward planning, which is more task-focused, backward planning is more milestone-focused. Backward planning starts with milestones listed in reverse chronological order, along with their associated tasks.

Why use backward planning?

Research conducted at the University of Iowa and Peking University demonstrated that reverse or “backward” planning was more effective than forward planning. More specifically, the study showed that when compared with forward planning, backward planning led to:

  • greater motivation
  • higher goal achievement
  • less time pressure
  • better goal-relevant performance
  • better ability to think of the required tasks.

Despite its proven effectiveness, most people don’t do backward planning.

To do backward planning, we need to understand milestones, and the steps to backward planning.

What is a milestone?

To me, a milestone is:

  • more of an accomplishment than an event,
  • likely to be associated with some kind of recognition or response from some other person or entity, and
  • almost always dependent upon the successful completion of something else.

Let’s take a look at Career Vision’s example of backward planning with milestones related to getting a new job. In reverse chronological order, here are the milestones:

7) complete an internship,

6) take the required courses at a university or community college,

5) get accepted into the program,

4) apply to schools,

3) explore schools that have the academic program desired,

2) job-shadow a few individuals working in the desired job, and

1) conduct informational interviews with people working in the desired job or career field.

Notice that each milestone depends on completion of a previous achievement. Notice that several of these milestones evoke a response from elsewhere — a certificate of completion for the internship, a diploma from the college, an acceptance letter, for example.

What are the steps to doing backward planning?

MindTools has identified 5 steps to backward planning. I’ll give my own descriptors for how to do those steps.

Step 1: Write down your ultimate goal  

Some would insist on writing a SMART goal. I’ve used SMART goals for years, but I’ve found that some people spend too much time tinkering with wording these “correctly.” If you’re new at goal-setting, I suggest you write a specific, measurable goal and attach it to a timeline.

Step 2: Determine your final milestone

In this example, the job requires the applicant to have completed an internship.   

Ask yourself this: What’s the last thing I need to accomplish in order to be eligible for the job? Well, if the job is open only to candidates who have completed an internship, then the final milestone is completing the internship.

Note how, when you write the milestone as an accomplishment, the related monthly, weekly, or daily tasks become obvious. And understand that whereas a milestone is usually associated with recognition, a task is associated with an effort.

To get your internship, you’d need to:

  • Show up every day to the site where you’re doing your internship.
  • Gain clarity on what, exactly, you need to do in order to complete the internship. (How many hours each week; what duties you’d need to perform in order for those hours to “count,” and so forth.)
  • Apply for the internship. 
  • Select sites that fit with your needs — what they offer, their geographic location, etc.
  • Explore settings where internships are available.

Think about it for a moment. No one recognizes you for showing up each day, surfing the internet to find internship opportunities, or completing the application form. These are just tasks, not milestones.  

Step 3: Determine your second-to-last milestone

In the above example, ask yourself what would be required in order to land an internship. The internship isn’t available to you until you complete the college course work.

Step 4: Work back again

In this example, the person needs to complete a college course of study.

Step 5: Continue to work back, in the same way

Backward planning simply means that you need to figure out what the end point looks like, and then figure out the steps that lead up to it.

The trouble is, what, exactly, do you plan? Either forward or backward?

Step 6: Review and revise, as needed

MindTools doesn’t mention this step, but I will! These milestones are merely “wet cement.”

Be willing to review you plan as you go along. 

Few of us can accurately foresee all of the milestones and all of the tasks. And, sometimes the milestones may need to change. (In the above example, perhaps the internship is no longer required for the person to be considered for the job.)

Hence, however good the plan is when it is created, it might need some adjustments along the way.

Understand, too, that you might not be able to list all of the associated tasks when you create your plan. You may need to add or modify those tasks as you go along. The important thing is to get most of it right, and get started!

For which one of your goals could you use backward planning? Or do you need help with goal-setting? If so, send email to today!

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