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Future retrospection: Reach your goals by thinking backwards

Category: Blog & News

“I still don't have all the answers. I'm more interested in what I can do next than what I did last.”

Charlie Sheen

It’s fair to say that American actor Charlie Sheen is famous for reasons other than his intellect, but in this quote I think he captures the polarity with which we often think about achievement. Some prefer to look to the past for lessons while others seek only to look forward. In research soon to be published, it seems our ability to bring these two time horizons together might be the secret to fulfilling our potential.

"Future retrospection": Reach your goals by thinking backwards

Conventional wisdom has it that when we plan to achieve a goal we start from where we are currently.  Let’s say I want to write a book. My plan might include drafting chapters, working out how I’ll publish it, producing copies and finally launching to market. In this case I am mapping out my plan chronologically, one task followed by another.

But that’s not necessarily the best approach.

Across 5 experiments researchers from Peking, Korea and Iowa universities found those who started by imagining the end goal (e.g. a book) and planned backwards were more likely to reach their goal than those who do what most of us do and work chronologically.

The researchers called this thinking backwards approach “future retrospection” – looking back at a future event. In essence, we first plan the steps we would take just before we achieve our goal, working back to the steps we need to take today.

In my case, to achieve my end goal of a book I would first plan the steps involved in a book launch before how the book would be produced, then published and finally drafted.

Why does future retrospection work?

According to this research, by imagining future events as if they were in the past, we are better able to visualise both the end goal and the steps required to get there. Our future becomes more solid because we feel we’ve already lived it.

The beauty of thinking backwards is that it gets around usual planning road bumps like feeling like the end goal is too far away or getting distracted by near-term problem solving.

Pre-mortems

Tricking our current selves into being more effective by imagining ourselves already in the future is not entirely new.  In 1989 researchers found that imagining an event has already occurred increased the ability of teams to correctly anticipate reasons for a future outcome by 30%. This they called “prospective hindsight”, now used as the basis for project “pre-mortems”. 

In business, where a post-mortem pulls apart reasons for an outcome after it has happened (which is good for future learning but too late to change the present), a pre-mortem asks members of the team to imagine the outcome before it has transpired. Each is asked to give reasons why the project was not a success and by doing so, the team can anticipate what is likely to go wrong and change it before it happens.

Should you think backwards for everything?

“Future retrospective” thinking is not required for every goal. Indeed, the researchers found that there was very little difference in outcome between forward and backward planning when it comes to simple or short-term goals. However, when contemplating a goal that is far away or complex, planning backwards can help by encouraging greater clarity.

How to use future retrospective thinking

When next contemplating a complex goal, start with your end-goal in mind. Let yourself visualise where, when, how and what is being delivered. Who is around you? Who is receiving the output? Once you’ve locked onto that, imagine the step just before you got there. And the one before that. By visualising backwards you will get a fix on your critical path, be able to identify the key activities you need to undertake and ensure you don’t get distracted by more immediate term problem solving.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

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