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Reverse Engineering Your Goals

Figuring out how to accomplish goals (especially long-term goals) can be difficult. The gulf between where you are now and where you want to be is often overwhelming. One of the most effective things you can do to overcome that overwhelming feeling is to bring the path to your goals into focus.

The best way to figure out the steps required to accomplish your goals is to work backward. Your destination, in this case, is actually the best place to begin. This might seem counterintuitive, but trust me, it works.

I’ve developed two variations to this method of planning. The two variants work well in different situations. Neither is better than the other. Pick the one that works best for the goal you’re trying to figure out, and switch between them if you get stuck.

In order to make this process easier make sure you pick only a single goal. Things will quickly get out of hand if you try it with multiple goals at the same time.

Both versions of this method require you to have a very clear vision of your goal and what, exactly, your life looks like once you’ve accomplished it. Before you start make sure you have a solid understanding of your destination.

Method One

Pick a single goal and write it at the top of a blank piece of paper or new file. Then, right under your goal, write the thing that has to happen immediately prior to that goal being accomplished. Be specific, and make sure it’s a single thing.

Now, on the next line, write what has to happen prior to the previous item. Again, be specific, and only write one single thing down.

Keep repeating this process until one of two things happens:

  1. You find the beginning of the path to your goal.
  2. You intersect where you are right now.

When you hit one of those two points you’ll have a map that will guide you from where you are now to where you want to be.

A simple example would start with a goal:

The first thing I write under it might be “Cook Eggs” since that’s the thing I do just before I sit down to eat breakfast. The item before that could be “Cook Bacon”, and so on. This example might eventually end when I get to something like “Buy Ingredients” or “Learn to Cook Breakfast”.

Method Two

The second method is similar to the first. Start with a single goal written at the top of a blank piece of paper or new file. Now, instead of starting immediately under the goal, start midway down the page, and write what the halfway point between where you are now and your goal looks like. Then, at the bottom, write “now”.

Now you have three points: Now, the midway point to your goal, and the goal itself. The next step is to figure out the two midpoints between those three points. Then you’ll have five points with four new midpoints to figure out, and so on.

Keep repeating this process until you’re confident that there are no midpoints (read: no gaps) left to fill in.

Working backward like this is difficult and time-consuming, but it’s worth the effort. At the end of the process you’ll have a map that will lead you right to your goal, and it’s hard to overestimate how useful having that map would be.