Step Backward to Move Forward

The most common approach to making progress is to push forward. That’s fine, because it works well most of the time.

But occasionally, you can make more progress by working backwards –not from where you are, but from the goal you’re trying to reach, and perhaps not from trying to achieve success, but from trying to avoid failure.

Here’s a simple example: suppose you need to deliver a research report by the end of the month. It’s often helpful to schedule backwards, and create earlier and earlier deadlines for the different aspects of the work required: Final draft by the 30th, first draft by the 23rd, data analysis by the 16th, data collection by the 9th, and so forth.

This same idea of thinking, planning, and working backwards can be helpful in a wide variety of scenarios in your work and your life.

Backwards Problem Solving

For example, suppose you’re trying to develop a solution to a particular problem. Instead of working forward, which is probably the most natural way to proceed, you may get an easier, better solution by working backwards, perhaps by asking:

  • What would be the benefits of a satisfactory solution?
  • What would be the features of something that offers those benefits?
  • What possible elements, items, ideas, or materials might deliver those features?
  • How can the right elements, items, ideas, or materials be assembled, fabricated, or otherwise applied to the problem?
  • What are the resources necessary to do that assembly or fabrication?
  • What are the steps needed to carry out this problem-solving process?

… and so forth.

This all may sound a little complex when discussed abstractly, as I have just done. But if you pick a problem to solve, the answers to each question quickly become a lot more concrete and specific.

Backwards Project Planning

Thinking, planning, and working backwards also works well when you’re trying to accomplish a goal. For example, the common approach is to focus on a good plan to reach the goal and then to work at getting that plan implemented.

A backwards approach, however, might be to think of potential obstacles and difficulties en route to that goal, and then work to prevent them from stopping you. You can do this by asking such questions as:

  • What difficulties are we likely to encounter?
  • How might some of what we do backfire on us?
  • What if our plans don’t work out well enough?
  • In what ways might we fail to reach our goal?

By anticipating and working to avoid many of the possible pitfalls associated with working toward your goal, you necessarily make success more likely.

Backwards Investing

I experienced another angle on this backwards thinking, planning, and working when I was involved several years ago with some high-powered stock market traders. They taught me that average traders often fail to make much of a success in the stock market. The primary reason: they tend to focus on how much they can make if their next trade does well.

The successful traders I was in touch with, however, took the opposite tack: they were obsessed with how much they could lose if their next trade did poorly. They never traded on a whim, a “tip,” or a sudden emotional urge. They researched meticulously and adhered strictly to their time-tested trading plan (each had their own). Their idea was never to trade unless they believed the risk was minimal and also the potential reward greatly outweighed it.

What’s more, they never allowed a winning trade to turn into a loser, and they unhesitatingly withdrew from any trade the minute its value dropped to their pre-established maximum loss.

This backwards focus on limiting losses instead of the more common focus on possible increases helped them accumulate large gains year after year.

In my experience, flipping the most common approach – working forward toward your goal – so that you are instead trying to think, plan, and work backwards from the goal you want to achieve and the negatives you want to avoid, is a perfectly viable and in many cases extremely effective way to increase your overall level of productivity and success.

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