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Backward Goal Setting

Set Realistic, Achievable Goals by Working Backwards

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Goal setting can be a time consuming, thought-provoking and overwhelming initiative. In fact, it is often one of the most procrastinated activities by busy entrepreneurs. This is because it takes a lot of thought, planning and foresight in order to set goals that not only clearly identify where you want to be, but are also made up of distinct, measurable, and action-oriented tasks. It's not surprising that many of us put it off.

But goal setting doesn't have to be an all or nothing, 8-hour marathon project that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and underprepared. While I am certainly a proponent of setting SMART goals, there are times you may want to get started with something easier to get past inaction and on to progress. You can get started with goal setting by following this simple process of working backwards from a big-picture end goal to a weekly or even daily task list that gets you closer to your end goal, little by little. Here is how to do it.

Step 1: Start with a Big, Broad and Distant Goal

I am sure you have several significant, long-term goals in mind already. They probably don't seem realistic or even possible at this point. They may be looser ideas, or even wishes you often think about. For example, you may want to start a business, buy a house, lose weight, or write a book.

For this exercise, the goal you select may be long-term, meaning realization of the goal could be two or more years in the future. But it will also work with shorter term goals, provided you're able to speed up the process and realistically accomplish a number targeted actions in a shorter period of time.

To start, pick one goal that stands out above the rest, and make it your focus. To demonstrate how it might work, we will use the goal of starting a business as our example.

Step 2: Break Your Big Goal into Smaller Supporting Goals

Now that you have an idea of where you want to be, think about what you will need to do right before you achieve your goal. You should aim for 3-5 supporting goals that will lead into the large goal.

For our example of starting a business, before we achieve our goal, we might determine that we need to:

  • Write a business plan
  • Determine the specifics of the products and services we are selling
  • Secure startup expenses
  • Choose business location for our business or create a home office
  • Create and begin to execute a marketing plan

Each of those five supporting goals will be necessary in order to achieve the main goal. As you continue through the process, each of these goals should be treated as a goal in and of itself, even though it is part of a bigger picture.

Step 3: Split the Supporting Goals into Smaller Targets

The next step of the process involves taking each of the supporting goals you outlined and breaking them down into smaller targets. For example, we could break "write a business plan" down into these targeted actions:

You would conduct this type of breakdown for each of the supporting goals you identified in the previous step.

Step 4: Create a Master List of Single Actions

The final part of the process is creating a list of single actions that will help you reach each supporting goal that will lead you to achieving your main goal. The trick here is to keep each action item as simple and specific as possible. You ultimately want a simple list of tasks you can easily complete one at a time, in a short period of time.

Identifying single actions is vital because it will help you build momentum and motivation. It may seem like a lot of parts, but one you create a list for each, you will have a very clear idea of what you need to do and the order you should do it in in order to get closer to your goal. Here is what the single action task list may look like in relation to your supporting goals and main goal.

MAIN GOAL: Start a business

SUPPORTING GOAL: Write a business plan

    TARGET: Determine the type of business plan you need

    ACTION: Read the article on types of business plans

    ACTION: Read the article on simplified business planning

    ACTION: Read the article on traditional business planning

    ACTION: Decide if you will be seeking capital, funding, loans or other financial support

    TARGET: Conduct research into your target market, competition, etc.

    TARGET: Determine what will set your business apart and make it unique

    TARGET: Gather financial data for your business plan

SUPPORTING GOAL: Determine the specifics of the products and services we are selling

SUPPORTING GOAL: Secure startup expenses

SUPPORTING GOAL: Choose business location for our business or create a home office

SUPPORTING GOAL: Create and begin to execute a marketing plan

Continue this process until you have each supporting goal broken down into smaller targets and then single actions, as shown for "write a business plan" above. Once complete, you can run your goal through a SMART goal check with this SMART Goal Setting Worksheet, and start completing each action one-by-one.

Throughout the process, remember that even the smallest action is better than inaction, and before you know it, you will be on your way to achieving your goal.

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