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Understand Your Goal and Work Backward

By Daniel Gold

One of my all-time favorite quotes is from Benjamin Franklin: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” I mention this quote every time I speak, no matter the topic. Why? Because it applies to everything we do in life.

With every task, project or matter you are working on, there is always a goal. If there wasn’t a goal, why would you be doing it?

Having Goals Doesn’t Guarantee You Will Achieve Them

You need to understand a few things about your goal — and prepare! — if you expect to reach it:

  • Why this goal?
  • What few things must absolutely go right for me to achieve this important objective?
  • What obstacles are stopping me from achieving my objective?
  • What resources (human or otherwise) do I need to accomplish this goal?

Why Is This Your Goal?

To better understand your goal, you need to understand the why behind it. Why is this goal important to you professionally or personally? Let’s say your goal is to learn how to speak Spanish by the end of 2016. Maybe one of your biggest frustrations is bringing in new business, and if you spoke better Spanish you could attract more clients. Therefore, if you learn to speak Spanish more fluently, you can market that new skill.

What Few Things Must Absolutely

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Go Right?

To accomplish this important business objective, you need to work backward from your desired completion date. Simple, right? But only if you make sure things go your way. Let’s say that you commit to yourself to start July 1, and want to have a basic fluency level by December 31. To achieve this, a few things must go right:

  1. Locating the right course materials.
  2. Practicing the exercises.
  3. Plotting time in the calendar.

What Obstacles Are in Your Path?

Understanding what possible constraints are upstream will help you overcome them downstream. Let’s say your most obvious constraint is finding time in your schedule to work on your goal. This is where working backward comes in.

After reviewing the course materials, you know that the program is broken into three main sections and each section will take about 45 days to complete — 135 days in total. From July 1 to December 31 is 184 days. By working backward in your calendar, you know you have to subtract the 10 days you have off in December, 5 days off in November, 4 days off in September, and 5 days off in July. Plus, you have a trial coming up in November that will last about 10 days, and a trial in October that should last 10 days as well. Altogether this means you have a mere 5 days of wiggle room.

So, you now know you will need to commit to one hour each week to meet your objective. Next, you plot study time out in your calendar over the next 179 days.

How will you fit in that hour each week? Say you wake at 5:30 a.m. to exercise, catch up on email, maybe help your partner with the children, have breakfast, and leave your house by 7:30 a.m. After a full workday, you leave the office at 6:30 p.m., sit in traffic, have dinner, chat with the family, catch up on email, and sure enough, it’s 10:30 p.m. and time to sleep so you can do it all again the next day. This is a substantial bottleneck. But if this business goal is important, something needs to give. Perhaps you sacrifice the morning email check and even shorten your exercise regime; maybe set your clock back 30 additional minutes so that you wake at 5 a.m. It sounds rough, but if you’re going to work backward, you must understand your constraints, face them head-on, and plan appropriately.

What Resources Do You Need?

Finally, you should be asking yourself what people and other resources you need to help you accomplish your goal. Will you need online material? Will you need to purchase books? How about a personal tutor? If you wanted to start on July 1, how many days will it take for you to research books, online courses and tutors? It may seem insignificant, but if we’re going to work backward on an important goal, every little detail matters.

Let’s Get Started!

Now that you understand how important working backward is for accomplishing your goals, take advantage of this simple checklist template in Evernote or OneNote. Copy it into your note-taking app of choice and get started!

Remember, to achieve your most important goals, it’s critical to prepare early and start with the end in mind.

Illustration ©

Categories: Daily Dispatch, Get It Done!, Lawyer Productivity
Originally published July 21, 2016
Last updated December 17, 2019
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Daniel Gold

Daniel Gold is a lawyer, consultant, technologist, speaker and author. Dan’s mission is to make a difference in the lives of professionals both at work and in life. He is known for his productivity e-books such as “Evernote: The Unofficial Guide to Capturing Everything and Getting Things Done” and “Make It Happen: How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your eBook.” He is also regarded as an expert in e-discovery and IT managed services. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielGoldEsq and @DEGConsulting.

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