Trying to Get Ahead? Plan in Reverse, Study Suggests

One fish swimming against the stream in a school of fish

Motivation research has found that we tend to be the most driven and enthusiastic about a project when we begin it and when we’re about to complete it. It is the pile of problems, work, and minor hassles in the middle of the two that turn determination wet-graham-cracker soft.

Researchers from the Peking University HSBC Business School, the Korea University Business School, and the University of Iowa collaborated to see if goal-planning methods affected motivation and pursuit of goals. Their research appears in Psychological Science. Over the course of five studies, they had groups of students plan their approach to general school work, unit tests, comprehensive exams, or important job interviews. Some of the participants planned their steps in chronological order. The other participants worked in reverse, planning the steps they would take just before their goal and working backward in time until they reached the step nearest in the future.

“Although extensive research has shown the benefits of planning, little attention has been paid to the ways people construct plans and their impacts on subsequent goal pursuit,” said Jooyoung Park, assistant professor in the Department of Management at Peking University HSBC Business School and first author on the paper.

Previous research has established that making specific plans and visualizing goals all spur goal-oriented actions and mindsets, but also that certain thought processes get in the way of goal progress. Feelings of distance to a goal, the number of goals in question, and ruminating on ideas rather than actions all slow goal-setters when moving forward.

For relatively simple goals, there was no difference between forward planning and backward planning. If a goal is short-term or requires only a couple of steps, the two are likely no different. But for complex tasks (like planning out how to study for a comprehensive exam), students preparing backward anticipated the necessary steps more clearly and followed the original plan to reach the set goal. They had higher expectations for reaching their goals and felt less pressed for time during progress toward them.

“This suggests that simply changing the way of constructing plans can produce different outcomes,” said Park.

The results held in both academic and career contexts. In addition, participants in some of the experiments came up with their own steps to reach a goal while other experiment instructions provided steps to them. In each case, the motivating effects appeared.

The researchers offer a number of explanations for why backward planning proved effective. Previous work in the field of goal setting, planning and motivation has identified the imagination as a motivating tool. True retrospection is used to review events that have already happened, but using one’s imagination to think of future events as if they were in the past facilitates visualization of both the end goal and the steps required to get there. This ‘future retrospection’ tends to increase the anticipation of pleasure from achieving the goal and helps bring about goal-directed behaviors.

Backwards planning may have helped the students forecast success rather than failure. If one starts at the end goal, the assumption is that efforts were successful to get there, while moving from the present to the future doesn’t necessarily assume success, and forces the goal setter to think through obstacles that might prevent it from happening. Research has shown that envisioning the steps necessary to complete a goal reduces anxiety, increases confidence, and lead to more effortful actions. Further, goal setters feel closer to the end goal in terms of time when they envision success rather than failure.


Jooyoung, P., Lu, F., Hedgcock, W. (2017). Forward and Backward Planning and Goal Pursuit. Psychological Science. DOI:10.1177/0956797617715510


The first time I ever used backward planning was in completing my dissertation. My dissertation advisor got out a paper calendar, marked when graduation was, when the grad. school had to have the completed copy turned in, and we filled in expected dates, how long to get it through the committee, turning each month backward to the start. It changed the whole process for me, making it “real” rather than a blend of hopeful expectation and the anxiety of the unknown. I stuck to the timeline and finished the project with weeks to spare. I’ve used this approach in teaching students, just did so last week with my senior research group, and used it in planning for my family’s move to a new house. Hope others will try it, it works!

Hi Rebecca, sounds like you already got the strategy mastered. Your comment inspired me. As a person who just started with their dissertation, I was wondering if you would mind sharing some of that knowledge. We can connect on Linkedin if you dont mind. My profile name is Mduduzi Mlilo(Msc Mechanical Engineering Candidate).

Compare this with the procedure of backward chaining in operant conditioning. See Whaley, D.L. en Malott, R.W. (1971): Elementary principles of behavior. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Last summer I had a project at work I decided we needed to complete because we needed the income from the project. I knew the date the money had to come in and worked backwards from there to the present. I was more motivated during that project than I had been all year.

I wish I had realized that it was the backward planning that did the trick or I would have used that more often.

I learned backwards planning in the process of building stage scenery and producing community theatre plays. It’s always backward from opening night.

Athetes use backward planning. We prioritize our races as A, B, C and create our training schedules around those races.

For years, Stephen Covey has presented, “Begin with the end in mind” as the first of his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Joel Barker has presented to hundreds of organizations on the “Power of Vision”. In my consulting practice, I begin strategic planning exercises with the challenge, “Imagine its 4 years into the future, December 31, 2021. Create, in detail what success your organization has achieved over the past four years. What new markets, products, processes, have you introduced? What game-changing initiatives have truly engaged your team to drive to these successes? Construct a year-by-year game plan that you used to achieve this level of success? What obstacles were overcome to get you HERE, on 12/31/2021?
Thank you for the reference and the study references.

Great way to plan, especially dissertations and the like. Other research also shows the value of identifying potential obstacles and creating plans for them. (See the WOOP model of motivation researcher Gabrielle Oettingen and”if-then” planning by Peter Gollwitzer.) The combination of these there works for my clients.

In 2013, we published a text, “End Point Vision and Beyond” that teaches Backward Shaping or planning in reverse. As Michael Gerber states in the E-myth revisited, “ The System is The Solution”. We give you a well defined system that makes the planning process in reverse straight forward. It has been used in many disciplines such as legal, sports, and defining a university business course. ISBN 978-1-928114-00-0

Very valuable research. We have been most successful with reverse planning, or as we refer to it
as, End Point Vision and Beyond with Backward Chaining (reverse planning)

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