Want a different feel for your New Year’s Resolution?

Here is a true “hack”*Reverse your planning procedure. Start from the end (imagining the goal accomplished) and then work back to today. While it’s a simple idea, you’ll find this approach takes some effort to do at first. (I felt a clear mental block when I first tried it on an important project.)  But, “future introspection” can really re-wire how you approach a goal.

Here’s some background: In studies from the Korea University Business School and the University of Iowa, groups of students planned their approach to school work, tests, exams, and job interviews. Some participants planned their steps in chronological order. Others worked in reverse, planning the steps they would take just before their goal and working backward in time until they reached the step nearest in the future.

The studies found no difference between forward planning and backward planning for relatively simple goals. For complex tasks, however, like planning out how to study for a comprehensive exam, students preparing backward anticipated the necessary steps more clearly and followed the original plan to reach their set goal.


Why Backwards Planning Helps

There are several explanations for why backwards planning helped students forecast success rather than failure. Making specific plans and visualizing goals all spur goal-oriented actions and mindsets. However, certain thought processes can get in the way of goal progress—feelings of distance to a goal, the number of goals in question, and ruminating on ideas rather than actions.

If you start planning at your end goal, the assumption is that your efforts were successful to get there. Moving from the present to the future doesn’t necessarily assume success at all. You are more likely to get stuck on the obstacles that might stop you. Or, you might also get tired and plan halfway.

Envisioning steps necessary to complete a goal reduces people’s anxiety, increases their confidence, and leads to more effort. Also, goal setters feel closer to the end goal in terms of time when they envision success rather than failure.

Give it a try!

Here’s tip for how to get started. Use a large paper or a white board and list the steps to your goal on individual sticky notes. This makes it easier to add and rearrange steps and to reverse the order.


Quitting and Breaking Up

But, what about bigger life questions, like when a person is considering whether to leave a job or break up from a relationship? Research shows that if you are unsure about it, it’s probably best to do it.

Is this a daunting idea? Yes. But important things usually are.

Job quitting and breaking up both have “very large, positive, and statistically significant coefficients at six months.” On hypothetical “happiness points,” people can get the kind of welfare jump you might expect if you moved from one of the least happiest countries in the world to one of the happiest. See the findings explained (in exhaustive detail) in this article from 80,000 Hours. (A favorite site of mine.)


Still Holding On

Finally — there’s the cost of holding on to old things. As this article reminds us:

“The faster we learn to drop our emotional dead weight, the more room we create for something better. I’m talking about everything from stewing about the guy who cut you off in traffic this morning to still refusing to forgive an old friend for an event 20 years ago.

We have only so much bandwidth. We have only so much time. We only have so much energy. Do we really want to invest any of our precious resources – financial or otherwise – into something that will return nothing but misery?”

If you are in the midst of New Year goals, here are several other great behavior change articles from the American Psychology Society that may inspire you.

Here’s to a good year!

—Dr. Thomas Doherty

*Hack:  a clever or elegant technical accomplishment, especially one with a playful bent

Published by Thomas Doherty

Psychologist Thomas Doherty's work on environmental sustainability and health has been featured in publications like the New York Times and in talks worldwide. Thomas consults with individuals and organizations through his business Sustainable Self. He was the founding Director of the Ecopsychology Certificate Program at Lewis & Clark Graduate School and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed academic journal Ecopsychology. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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