But what about in other aspects of our lives? We have a wealth of information about how to set SMART goals and the importance of goal-setting – but what do we know about planning?
In the November 2017 issue of Psychological Science, Park, Lu, and Hedgcock published a stimulating article on planning. Their focus was on the different outcomes obtained from forward planning versus backward planning.
- forward planning: “planning the steps required to reach a goal in chronological order, starting with the step temporally closest to the present and ending with the step furthest from the present” (p. 1620).
- backward planning: “planning the steps in reverse chronological order, starting with the step furthest in time from the present and ending with the step closest in time” (p. 1621).
- visualizing a goal or event “makes it easier to analyze the event and comprehend necessary steps to make it happen”
- contrasting a future goal or event with the current reality helps separate “reachable and unreachable goals” (assuming goal has been elaborated)
- contrasting a future goal or event with the current reality increases commitment and effectiveness (assuming goal has been elaborated)
- “Thinking in reverse order makes people less likely to perceive the present reality as an impediment” (p. 1621)
- “Backward planning is particularly helpful for complex problems” or planning where there is much uncertainty
Therefore they predicted “mentally contrasting the future attainment of desired goals with the present reality will help people clearly see the reality to overcome and selectively commit to essential steps for goal achievement.” They expected this mental contrasting through backward planning to be more motivational and effective. Forward planning has more potential missteps, more choices emerge, potentially less motivation as the steps unfold.
In five studies with various designs this is pretty much what they found. Backward planning
- led to greater motivation and “better goal-directed behavior”
- better anticipation of the necessary steps to the goal
- better following the plan
- higher expectations that the goal would be achieved
1. Park, Lu, and Hedgcock’s studies involved individual planning. Like much of psychological research, the participants were undergraduate students. My guess is their findings would hold up well for individual or small group planning. Too often we’ll set a goal and then try to figure out how to get there, usually thinking about what do we have to do first? Could we more fully visualize the goal desired and work backwards from that goal? It may be harder to start that way but once planned, it may be easier to execute. Goal-setting is important but perhaps also is where do you begin the planning?
2. I am a firm believer in the power of goal-setting. In my personal and professional life, I have done much planning. Which is better – a roadmap or a compass? I think it may depend on the goal.
3. My preference for planning in organizations is to use PERT (Program-Evaluation-Review Technique) in a simplified form. Working with others identify all possible steps in the process to achieve the goal. Flow the steps sequentially (some may be able to occur simultaneously). Take a hard look at each step and potential difficulties. Estimate times to accomplish each step. Then find the critical path, the series of most time-intensive steps that must be achieved to accomplish the goal. What are the most critical steps? I am not sure if this is forward planning or backward planning. Step creation need not be forward. Steps are identified and then ordered. The benefit here is the capability to analyze and steps to execute the plan.
4. I concur with the authors on the importance of visualization. Regardless of your occupation or goals in life, visualizing the goals you want to achieve, seeing in your mind what goal achievement would be like, should increase the probability of those goals being achieved.
Park, J., Lu, F., & Hedgcock, W. M. (2017). Relative effects of forward and backward planning on goal pursuit. Psychological Science, 28(11), 1620-1630.
Image "Planning" by Nick Youngson, . Obtained from http://www.picserver.org/p/planning.html
Used with permission: Public domain per CCO 3.0
© John Ballard, PhD, 2017. All rights reserved.
Author, Decoding the Workplace, BEST CAREER BOOK Next Generation Indie Book Awards 2016.