When it comes to big goals, the most perilous part of the journey is the middle. When we first start chasing a new accomplishment, we're usually fired up about the project. When we're close to the end, we're determined to see our hard work pay off. It's around halfway, when annoyances build up and exhaustion sets, that we're most likely to quit.
Is there any way to avoid this "motivational valley of death"? Scientists think they may have discovered one, but brace yourself, it sounds a little counterintuitive at first.
Thinking backwards will make you more successful
When people are tackling big goals, they often get the same advice -- break that huge, scary objective down into less terrifying baby steps. A new study by an international team of psychologists builds on this common recommendation. The researchers wanted to know whether the order in which you plan those baby steps makes any difference when it comes to your chances of success.
To find out, they developed a series of five experiments in which they asked student volunteers to plan for a variety of daunting goals -- from acing a tough test to nailing a dream job interview -- by mapping out each action they'd need to complete to succeed.
The twist? Some of the students planned their tasks in the usual way, starting from the beginning and then imagining the steps necessary to reach their goal one by one. A second group turned the classic planning process on its head. They started by imagining the end result and then worked backward, visualizing the final step first, then the one before that, then the one before that, etc.
How did this upside-down approach affect the students' likelihood of actually accomplishing their aim? The Association for Psychological Science blog sums up the findings:
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.
Or, to put it even more simply, planning backwards increases the odds you'll reach your goal and reduces the stress you'll feel getting there.
Visualize your way to more motivation
Why is working backwards so effective? The researchers speculate that thinking backwards from your end goal forces you to imagine your eventual success in greater detail and with greater clarity. That makes the goal seem both more appealing and more reachable, driving up motivation.
Or as the APS puts it, "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."
So next time you're facing a long, difficult road to reach an important goal, don't simply put one foot in front of the other. Instead, take some time to really imagine your destination and then work backwards from there to plan your route. You'll be much less likely to get lost on your way if you plan your journey in reverse, science says.