Bushwhacking for Hipsters #5: Backward Brainstorms

Most of the time, I have no problem setting goals. I can even set SMART goals, like we talked about last week, that have deadlines and measurable progress indicators, with no problem whatsoever, if I have a clear idea of what it is that I want.

My problem, and I’m finding that I’m not alone with it, is that once those goals and pictures are in place and written down, I have absolutely no idea what to do first. It’s like I’m faced with a room full of possibility, and some imaginary authority figure says in a booming voice, “PICK ONE....”. I can only do one thing at a time, of course, and even though I know where I want to go, I’m really not sure what would be the most logical and/or most effective first step in getting there.

There are a few ways I’m circumventing the idea of overwhelming choice that tends to immobilize me. Two of which, I’d like to share with you, in case you’re also feeling a little bit like you’ve got an insurmountable mountain to climb to get from here to there.

The first of these methods is more of a brainstorming activity, which helps pave the way to the second method. It involves a bit of playing on paper with each of your goals that you feel stuck with, and helps minimize the confusion of that first step. It’s called a Backward Brainstorm.

On a piece of paper or in your journal, write your goal at the very top. That’s your final outcome, where you want to be or what you want to achieve.

Looking at that goal, then, ask yourself what needs to be done before I get there?. What, when you’re thinking about the final outcome, would need to be in place before you could check that one off your list?

For example, if your goal is to publish a book on your passion, one thing that would need to be done before that could happen the way you envision it is that you’d have to find a publisher, either a traditional publisher or a company to do self-publishing for you. Decide which of these you’d like to have happen, and write that step below the goal, connected with a line, almost like a mind map but more linear.

Your list would now look like:


Then, just look at the current item (in our example, “find a traditional publisher”),and ask the same question. What would need to happen for me to complete that step? If you were looking for a publisher, the logical next step backward would be something like creating a book proposal, for instance. Add that to your list further down, connected with a line.

Sometimes, while doing this exercise, you’ll find that you reach a point where you’re just not sure what the next step would be. Instead of getting frustrated or giving up on it, make that next step “Research X to find out Y”, so that you have a concrete action associated with the list. There’s nothing wrong with making goals you aren’t sure how to achieve, as long as you do the necessary footwork to find out what steps you have to take.

Set your list aside once you’ve reached the first concrete action you can take, and move on to the next goal’s backwards brainstorm. You can do this process all at once, or set aside small bits of time each day for a set number of days to do it. At the end of the time and list of goals, you’ve got a “map” of sorts, that tells you what actions need to happen, and in what order, making the road from here to there on your goal-journey look a lot more illuminated.

The second step of this planning process involves some more concrete planning. In your hipster PDA or other D*I*Y Planner device, work from the deadlines you set for each goal initially. Write in on your calendar pages when you set the deadline for each goal.

Pull out your Backward Brainstorm lists, and take a good, hard look at each line item. How long will it take you to complete that item? Estimate liberally if the item depends on assistance from someone else; your goal may not be as important to them as it is to you, and may be delayed a bit, timewise, as a result. If they get the part of the goal they are responsible for done early, you can consider it bonus time that way, instead of having it make you crazy and feeling behind.

Note the time you think it may take to complete the line items on your lists. Add up the time. Did you give yourself enough time to complete the final goal? Make a few changes in your goal deadlines, if you need to.

Once those final goal deadlines and the estimated times to completion of each line item is set, start from the FINAL GOAL and work BACKWARD to plan when you will do each step. It is much, much easier to see how to break up your time when you do this in reverse, rather than crunching in a lot of stuff right at the end, and feeling like you’ve missed your final goal’s deadline.

Write in your activities and tasks on the day and time you plan to do them.

A few cautions:

* Don’t overschedule yourself. It’s better to push back some deadlines at the start than it is to try to overdo it and burn out on ALL your goals. It’s said that most people overestimate what they can do in a day, underestimate what they can do in a week, and vastly underestimate what a year can bring. Keep this in mind while scheduling so that you don’t overestimate your days. I’ve done this, and it can seriously make your mind melt and dribble unceremoniously from your ears. It’s not pretty.

* Vary which goal you’re going after from time to time. Too much single-minded monotony can burn you out as fast as doing too much in a day. I know that if I’m working on one thing for too long, it’s not even a case of burnout -- it ends up being a case of wanting to light myself on fire rather than do even one more activity related to that same thing. If you’re the type who picks one thing, does it all the way through like a focused laser, and then moves on, chances are, you’re not reading this, you’re solving that whole “nuclear fission issue”. Say hello to me in your Nobel Prize speech instead, and by all means, do what you do best.

* The biggest tip? SCHEDULE BREAKS AND REWARDS. Downtime is as important in the goal-setting process as action is. It allows you to recharge and come back swinging. Write directly in your planner what reward you’ll take for achieving one of those mini-steps toward your goals. Dinner with a friend, a new something-or-other that you’ve been debating buying, or a trip to a local museum to refill your creative well -- anything small and mental-cookie-like can be one of your downtimes/rewards. Make it good enough, and you’ll be more likely to move forward toward the next milestone.

The process of scheduling your goals can seem a little complex, but it really is one of the best tools in your toolkit for moving closer to your dreams and avoiding that first-step hesitation. Sometimes, even just the process of making the backward brainstorm lists can motivate you, since it takes those goals from an amorphous blob and turns them into something you can see and do, not to mention helps you plan out exactly how soon you can get to where you want to be.

Next week, we’ll be sitting down with some friends and sharing our goals, and I’ll be giving you some help in finding some like-minded folks who can be the ladder to your own motivation, including friends and family you might already have in your life.

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Thanks for the series of articles.

I've been away from the site for awhile but just found your series of articles. Just wanted to say I'm enjoying the track they are taking. I like this backward brainstorming. I think I unconsciously use the method but never went about specifically applying it to a goal.

I especially like the earlier idea of the giant size Mind Map. I do mind mapping on a regular basis and it's interesting to see how they change over time. However, I never considered putting one up on the wall or anything. Let's see, I have an 11x17 drawing pad, lots of colored pencils and gel inks, a blank wall in my kitchen, and the long Labor Day weekend coming up. Sounds like a project brewing... :)

Backwards Brainstorming

Nice post.

This sort of backwards brainstorming (identifying the goal, then the last step needed then backward chaining through all the steps) is often done in a less personal setting when redesigning businesses processes or activities.

It works well, but depending on the situation, other methods sometimes work better. For example, if you are struggling to identify specific steps, then trying to identify enablers, critical success factors or "what needs to be in place" to achieve the goal sometimes makes things easier. Then when you have these more concrete things listed you can focus on the steps needed to achieve them.

Sometimes coming at it from a "what are the barriers to achieving this goal?" angle can also be helpful.

A good general purpose methodology for doing this sort of thing is a part of Eli Goldratt's Theory of Constraints known as creating "Future Reality Trees". These are chains of cause-effect logic which lead to the positive outcome you are hoping for. You can then build concrete plans to put in place the critical building blocks which make up the tree. It's well worth looking into this methodology if you're not familiar with it.