Planning Backwards

Everyone needs to plan. Planning enables us to rack up accomplishments, make our dreams come true, and get through life with minimal stress. Yet, people often  lack planning skills and they suffer more than is necessary as a result.

The simplest description of how to plan is to think backwards, that is, to identify the goal and then imagine the actions needed to get there. Along with showing essential actions, this process helps to identify resources needed to achieve the goal, and the skills that must be built to do it. People don’t normally think backwards so let’s explore how to do this.

Planning Process
Thinking backwards may sound challenging but is easy and quickly becomes automatic once the skill is learned. Start by visualizing your goal: something very important to you, that you need to achieve to feel complete and fulfilled, and you will be willing to keep working on even after you are totally sick of it (this happens with any large project). Your goal can't be too easy or it will be unsatisfying; it can't be so hard that achievement is impossible; in between there is a happy medium that will ensure struggle, learning, and the chance for triumph.

Next, imagine the big steps essential to achieve your goal. Let’s use buying a home as an example throughout this article. Owning a home is often not really the deepest goal as much as the sense of rootedness, accomplishment, and security that homeownership provides. This matters because sometimes a starting goal exceeds our capacities or possibilities, actual desires, or has major drawbacks so alternative means of satisfying underlying needs may be needed.

But let’s say that owning a home is definitely your goal, what big steps, called Objectives, are needed to make it happen? To buy a house, you must address these issues:

There could be many more major objectives than this – these just illustrate the process.

Each objective is made up of a few or dozens of smaller Action Steps, many of which connect to each other, but can often be done in little pieces and independent of each other. For example, for the Where objective, the action steps might be:
     - choosing a country, state, or region
     - choosing between city, suburbs, or country
     - choosing a zip code, neighborhood, or block
     - choosing a specific house

Each decision may depend upon many factors such as work requirements, preferences, expectations, affordability, practicality, wishes or needs of others, and a host of other potential factors. Some decisions may be automatic, such as buying in a particular area to be near (or far from J) family, locating in a given area to take advantage of a job, government program, or other opportunity, while other decisions may require research, study, discussion, thought, and some or many visits. An opportunity for a specific house may accelerate your plans, but this usually means having to plan and prepare in a big rush. Some goals may have objectives that require few decisions, such as which country or state to live in, making planning easier. Making decisions is mentally taxing and it is good to find issues that don't require this effort.

Decisions like Point B., what Type of home, require alternative thinking, imagining the pluses and minuses of each type, and doing scenarios to see what each approach would mean to you. Scenarios can show you exciting possibilities, help you be more clear about what you do and don’t want, and to make better, well-planned choices. Talking with others can sometimes help to see possibilities that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Ultimately, most major action steps must be split into numerous Tasks that can be done in small (15 minutes or so) segments to permit steady progress toward your goal every day. Using Point C. “figure out what resources are needed and available to help” on our objective list as our example, you might need action steps to:

There will be many more tasks, but the point is to show how to break each objective into doable action steps and break each action step into bite-size tasks.

Goals are most easily accomplished when they are written down. Breaking out the objectives, action steps, and tasks in detail eases seeing what has been done, what remains to be done, and what is next at any given moment. Almost any method works for breaking out plans: scratch paper, flip charts, elegant forms, or sophisticated spreadsheets – all support keeping track of what is needed at any given moment. I like spreadsheets that show the goal and all objectives on the front page, with a separate page (also called a new worksheet or tab) for each objective where the action steps can be broken out in great detail.  Spreadsheets make adding new pages or lines whenever needed easy. Some work projects may have massive numbers of critical activities that require checking each page weekly or daily to keep track of urgent deadlines. Secondary pages can also track tasks delegated to other people, or to show where consultations with others are needed. Flip charts and email are useful for updating groups of people on the current project status and their role in making it happen.

Planning by year, month, and day
Personal goals may not have any particular required timeline, but work goals and projects usually do. The easiest way to ensure meeting deadlines is to create a timeline for your goal, and for each objective, action step, and task. Look at each objective, action step, and task in terms of the preferred or required timeline for the entire goal and see what that means for when each piece must be accomplished to meet the overall timeline for the goal. This may show that the preferred timeline is unrealistic because the amount of work that would have to be done in the time specified is not possible, or that the amount of time spent working on this project each day must to greatly increase. Meeting the timeline may force sacrificing many other activities to make it possible; the more clear and conscious you can be about exactly what each choice means in terms of your other life priorities, the better the decisions you will make.

Using our example of buying a home, if your timeline is five years, then at what point does each objective, action step, and task need to start and be finished by to make the whole timeline work? Some tasks, such as finding a lender can probably wait until the last year of your plan, but others, such as making a budget to show where to shrink all non-urgent expenses to save for the down payment and to see how much house you can afford (house payments + taxes + estimated maintenance and repairs costs + insurance divided by 12, then compared to your income or reasonably anticipated income by purchase time). Your budget needs to be modified whenever your income or expenses change; tracking your actual vs. planned expenses and income can help keep your budget more realistic. Identifying how much you can spend on a down-payment and monthly payments will likely also affect other objectives such as location and perhaps timeline.

Writing down relationships between components eases identifying objectives, action steps, or tasks that can only happen when other tasks are complete. For the example of buying a home, the task of approaching banks or other funding sources should probably wait until after you have selected a realtor who may know the best ones to approach. Similarly, approaching realtors might wait until you have a budget and rough idea of how much you can afford to spend on house payments, etc.

Dealing with obstacles, difficulties, and setbacks
Every goal or project encounters numerous obstacles, difficulty, and setbacks that must be overcome to continue moving forward. Some problems may be discovered in advance when you work on the timeline, some can be anticipated based on experience or imagination, and others will be outside anything you could have expected. The key to successfully coping with any apparent disaster is to stay calm and keep your spirits up. Most seeming disasters are actually not when you look more closely, and it is rare to encounter a problem that cannot be solved, but the solution may mean much more work than you wanted to do. My attitude towards these situations is “Well, so what? It’s only work. No big deal. What else have I got to do?”


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© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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