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How to Use Backward Planning to Accomplish Your Goals

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. Most of us, though, feel as if we’d stepped into quicksand. Maybe you’d like to become an IBCLC® and feel overwhelmed. 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 pressures
  • 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.

Perhaps your ultimate goal is to become an IBCLC.

Step 2: Determine your final milestone

In CareerVision’s 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.  

If your ultimate goal is to become an IBCLC, you need to pass the IBCLC exam.

Step 3: Determine your second-to-last milestone

In the above example, the goal is to get a job. (It is not addressing job for lactation consultants. It could be getting a job as an engineer or a psychotherapist or something else.) So, the job-seeker should ask what would be required to land an internship (step 7 in that example). The internship isn’t available until step 6 has been completed in their example.

Step 4: Work back again

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

If you want to become an IBCLC, you’d need to complete the requirements to sit for the exam, including your lactation specific education before applying for the certification exam.

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 the milestones and all of the tasks. And sometimes the milestones may need to change.

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 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!

Are you using backward planning to get on your journey to IBCLC, or maybe recertifying?

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