We human beings tend to be linear, forward-thinking creatures. We put one foot in front of the other and push ahead, facing the world.
But when you’re dealing with a big endeavor—like launching your own business or a big consulting project—starting from the beginning doesn’t always makes sense. Often, say experts, it’s smarter to begin your thinking with the end in mind. “From a creative and practical standpoint, you want to make sure you have a strong vision of the result you’re after,” says Edward Vilga, a creativity coach in San Francisco. “Then, you can work backward from there.”
If that sounds, well, ass-backward, think of it this way: “Sometimes, when you very clearly imagine your end- point, you suddenly realize what it is you want and you can go right to it. You're cutting out a bunch of middle steps because you’re getting to the essence of your dream,” says Samantha Bennett, a productivity expert and creator of The organized artist company.
Mostly, though, thinking in reverse is a way to tackle something really big without feeling overwhelmed. “Since you’ve already visualized your goal, you won’t be as intimidated. You can start to break the steps down and get a very clear sense of what you need to do when,” says Vilga.
Ready to reverse yourself? Here’s how to do it:
1. Start with your dream. You want to launch a consulting business to help companies become greener, where you travel part of the time, work from home regularly and have a week each month to explore new technologies.
Or you’re dreaming of turning those nifty little iPhone cases you make into an online design shop that specializes in homey crafts in a high-tech world. Think about exactly what you’re looking to achieve: to turn a creative outlet into some supplemental income? Or leave a corporate job and earn mid-six figures on your own?
Next, envision how many clients you'll need to sign on, or product units you’ll have to produce, and how much you’ll need to charge to meet your financial and life goals. You can get some great tips from the government’s Small Business Administration website. “You might decide that you have to put in 60 hours a week the first year while you’re getting launched,” says Vilga. “Or you might conclude that you want to work fewer hours and charge more.”
2. Think about your deadline. Do you want to be able to support yourself within a year? Three months? Three years? Grab a calendar and mark your end date, then start working backward from there (see below). That way, you’ll be able to suss out if you’re giving yourself enough time to get where you want to go.
3. Get very, very specific. Now it’s time to drill down and turn your goal into concrete, actionable, steps,” says Bennett.
To be on your way to earning your dream number six months out, for instance, you may calculate that you’ll need at least three steady clients by the time you’re two months in; 10 clients in six months.
Great—now what would it take to make that happen? If the best way to get clients in your field is to show your face at industry conferences, start doing research on upcoming events, and sign up.
Or, if you plan to get clients through speaking engagements, you’ll need to be booked at two or three events three months from now, so you’ll want to be approaching people two months from now. Which means that one month from now, you’ll need to have your promotional materials and website together. (Time to hire a web designer?) And so on.
4. Be open to revision. Once you start mapping out the components, you could very well discover that your six-month plan is really a nine-month plan. That’s okay. “Just break it down, and keep working your way back to the present moment,” says Vilga.
“When you plan things the usual way, it can feel scary. There are so many things that need to happen—and it may feel as if they need to happen all at once,” Vilga explains. “In contrast, there’s something comforting about reframing your project with a sense of completion.” Suddenly, you’re not facing a big, amorphous goal, but rather, dealing with a concrete plan and a schedule that’s realistic.
Now backward, march!
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