It’s one thing to set goals. It’s another thing to have a plan for achieving them. Backcasting is a strategy you can use to identify obstacles and make achieving your goals more likely.
I’ve never been good at goal setting. I’m not entirely sure what my problem is. No matter what I try to do, picking a goal feels forced. I don’t feel like I’m setting the goal for myself, but rather because “I should set goals.”
Fundamentally, my problem with setting goals is the goals themselves. I find them to be arbitrary. But that doesn’t mean they are bad. On the contrary, I think goal-setting is clearly a powerful tool for us to get the most out of ourselves.
But it’s not the goals that matter. It’s the goal-setting. Dwight Eisenhower is reported to have said: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
The same is true for goals. Goals are worthless. Goal-setting is everything.
But wait…I thought this is an article about backcasting… What is backcasting, anyway?
It is. Backcasting is an approach to goal-setting that helps make our goals more achievable.
FORECASTS VS BACKCASTS
I learned the word “backcast” from Annie Duke’s book Thinking in Bets: Making Smart Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts. She created the word to contrast with forecasts.
Forecasts are where we start from today, take whatever data we have, and project out likely scenarios for the future. Forecasts are a critical part of being successful because they challenge us to be rigorous about what we know and what assumptions we are making. We do them for the weather, sales, the economy…anything where we want to predict how long it will take to get to a goal.
A backcast is different. Backcasts start at our future goal. From there, we look backward to where we are today and we try to imagine what paths we can take to get there. Most importantly, we try to imagine all of the obstacles that are going to keep us from achieving our goal. Each of these obstacles will need to be either avoided or overcome.
Both are useful for making plans. In principle, forecasts don’t need to have goals associated with them (though many managers use forecasts to justify their goals). But backcasts work best with North Star goals, because we need to imagine ourselves achieving them to start the process.
THE BENEFITS OF BACKCASTING
There are a few key benefits to backcasting.
You can find your “best path”: Backcasting identifies your “best path” to getting where you want to go. There are often many different paths you can take to your North Star goals. But some will have more obstacles than others. Some will require more work now, whereas others will get difficult in the future. And if you do this exercise and can’t find a realistic path, that is a sign your goal isn’t the right one.
Identify the biggest obstacles: The best way to prepare for a situation is to know it’s coming. When you can identify major obstacles early, it gives you the time to prepare for them. That may help you to avoid them entirely or, if they are unavoidable, to craft a plan to overcome them. The things that slow us down the most tend to be the obstacles we never saw coming.
It boosts confidence and motivation: Knowing you’ve done the work to prepare, knowing you have a plan, and knowing there is a path to success make the entire journey easier. You approach problems more proactively. You ask better questions and identify problems quicker. And doubt about the end result is less likely to hold you back.
On top of this, backcasting as a strategy can work with any type of goal. Because it’s less about the goal and more about the plan. If you can plan for it, you can backcast it.
HOW TO BACKCAST EFFECTIVELY
The reality is, backcasting doesn’t have to be a rigorous activity. You can do it to whatever level you feel comfortable.
If you have a big North Star goal and you want to maximize your chance of achieving it, then I would recommend sitting down and writing out the biggest obstacles you expect to face. Start with the obvious ones but try to imagine a few other, more unlikely ones. What if those were to occur? Would you be ready?
Then outline a few ideas for the type of actions you would need to take or the people you would need to support you. Do you have a team to help you? Would you need one?
But even if you don’t do this formally and write it all down, I recommend doing it as a thought exercise while you are standing in line at a store or even while you’re out for a jog. Pick a random scenario that could affect your ability to achieve your goal and outline a plan for it.
Every time you do this you are increasing your likelihood of success! And you’ll be surprised how often something you didn’t think was likely does end up happening. When it does and you’ve already thought about it, you’ll be more likely to handle it well.
SUMMING IT UP
Being good at backcasting doesn’t automatically make you a good goal-setter. It certainly hasn’t made me an active goal-setter or a more goal-oriented person.
But as a father, a runner, and the co-founder of a company I do have goals. And many of the people I work with are highly motivated by goals. Backcasting is one tool that I can use to improve how I communicate with others about their goals, and even improve their chances of achieving them.
Whether you are goal-driven or goal-setting driven, I hope you’ll give backcasting a try. It will make you think differently about what’s possible.
Bryan Green is the co-founder, Editor, and COO of Go Be More. To reach the most people possible, he needs to overcome the obstacle of people not spreading the word. You can help him by sharing this article with a friend. He would also love your direct feedback at bryan◎gobemore.co or on our Facebook page.