Why planning in reverse is the key to goal completion

Goals are a fundamental part of life, so figuring out the best way of achieving them is crucial to most of us, whether in our personal or professional lives.  Previous research suggests that our motivation tends to peak at the start of a task, and then again as we near completion, with a slump in the middle as we grapple with various challenges along the way.

A recent study, led by the University of Iowa, set out to explore whether the way we frame our goals and plan towards them influences the success we have in various tasks.

“Although extensive research has shown the benefits of planning, little attention has been paid to the ways people construct plans and their impacts on subsequent goal pursuit,” the authors say.

Setting goals

There has been considerable research into the best way to set goals in the past.  For instance, it’s well known that breaking a task down into bite sized chunks is an effective way of managing a project.  Equally, there are well known barriers to completion, whether it’s the distance to a goal or the number of goals you use.

The authors wanted to explore whether it’s more effective to plan forwards or backwards.  Whilst it appeared to make little difference for relatively straightforward goals, more complex tasks were performed more effectively when people planned backwards.  This would usually allow participants to imagine the steps they need to take more clearly, and then follow them towards the overall goal.  They also reported feeling less stressed and having higher expectations towards meeting their targets.

What’s more, the phenomenon held even when the participants were allowed to create their own steps as opposed to having them given to them.

Why reverse planning works

The authors believe that reverse planning is so effective for a number of reasons.  Their work builds upon previous studies that have shown how powerful the imagination is in helping to motivate us.  Retrospection works best when we review events that have already occurred, but imagination can be used to do the same for future events as it allows us to frame such events as though they’ve already happened.  This facilitates the visualization of both the final goal and the various sub-goals we need to complete to get there.  It’s a form of future retrospection if you like, and it helps to both get us excited about completing each sub-goal, whilst also helping us to do the things needed to achieve it.

The authors also believe that planning in reverse also allows the goal setter to visualize a successful outcome because you start at the end, when presumably success has been achieved.  Doing it in reverse focuses instead on the steps, and therefore obstacles, required to overcome to achieve your goal.

So maybe the next time you have a big project ahead, think it through in reverse and see how effective it is at helping you to succeed.