The first time I heard the term ‘back-planning’ was from a former instructor in the U.S. Army. He was giving a presentation about goal setting and how it related to planning a military operation. When the military plans an operation, they first decide exactly what it is they want to accomplish, then after deciding what the end goal is, instead of creating the necessary steps that lead up to the goal, they plan backwards, from the goal on down to the first step. Note to reader: Back-Planning was not used in the current War on Iraq. ;)

After hearing this I thought, “there’s something awfully familiar about this process…”

How it works

When I was in grade school, the Rubik’s Cube was as popular as today’s X-Box. Before actually learning how to really solve it, I remember as a boy taking the cube apart and assembling it into its finished state. I would then proceed to go backwards one move and then return it to its solution, then go back two moves and then solve it again. This would continue move after move until, to anyone else looking at it, it looked completely jumbled up. After memorizing the solution, I would then impress friends and family with my ability to quickly “solve” the entire puzzle. Now as you probably guessed, they quickly caught on to my little stunt. But in actuality, there’s a lot of wisdom to this approach.

As with my Rubik’s Cube solution, the first step in back planning involves “beginning with the end in mind.” What is it exactly that you want to accomplish? Without a clear sense of where you want to end up, you’ll likely get lost before the journey ever begins.

After you know what it is that you want to attain, start by going one step backwards. Ask yourself, “what would the previous step have to be in order for me to achieve this end goal?” Now, after figuring out the previous step, place yourself at this level and ask yourself the same question to determine what needs to come before this step. Recursively follow this process until you reach your current situation.

This might require a slight brain reboot. So many of us are used to the approach of setting a goal and then trying to figure out the steps necessary to achieve that goal from the beginning to the end. This bottom-up approach, as I have often experienced, has left me frustrated because I didn’t know exactly how or what to begin, hamstringing myself in the process.

This unique way of looking at planning from a top-down approach won’t limit you to being stuck at the bottom, looking up in frustration on how to reach the top. From the bottom looking up, you don’t have the same sense of vision and clarity as a looking-down-from-the-top approach will give you.

In essence you go through the entire journey backwards in your mind, and after reaching the bottom you now know exactly what steps you need to take to reverse the process and begin the journey.

Be forewarned that this type of planning will initially take some time, due to the research required in figuring out the top-level decisions. But it will be well worth your while. This isn’t the case with all goals, but for some long-term goals such as wanting to retire in 10 years, it takes a little more investigation.

Your Challenge

As an exercise, pick something in your life that you want to achieve. Since the new year is coming up, why not pick one of the goals that you’ve decided upon. Now take out a piece of paper and at the top write what your end result is. Put a date beside it. Now proceed to back plan, listing each step in reverse order with its corresponding date, until you reach January 1st, 2007. Be as specific as possible, and if you’re stuck, begin to do some research.

You’ll probably be amazed, as I was, at how broad the scope of your vision will be at the end of this exercise. You’ll now see in clarity, exactly how you will reach your goal.

It is often when we change the way we look at things, in this case from above, that we gain a better understanding of what it is we’re looking at. Whether it’s with goal setting or learning to “solve” the Rubik’s Cube, back planning can help you achieve it.

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