Is it just me, or did it take longer to get to places as a kid than it does as an adult? Actually, I know it’s not just me, because “are we there yet?” is a question that kids love to annoy you with.
When I was six years old, we would cram into my mom’s car and drive all the way across town to my aunt’s house for what seemed like hours, and I would complain to my mom about how bored I was the entire way (sorry, Mom). It was a looooong, exhausting trek. When I got a few years older, I realized my aunt’s house was a mere 20 minutes away. I became familiar with the route, I knew where the endpoint was, so the journey was easier to tolerate.
Reaching your goals works the same way. Goals are much more bearable you when you know what the end looks like. And recent research from the Korea University Business School supports this idea, too. It found that planning a goal backward made subjects more successful with that goal. In one study, the researchers asked participants to come up with a study plan for their final exam, either in chronological order (forward planning) or reverse order (backward planning).
Reverse planning meant “planning the steps they would take just before their goal and working backward in time until they reached the step nearest in the future,” as Psychological Science put it. According to the study, students who planned backward actually performed better on the test than those who planned forward.
Why Reverse Planning Is More Effective
So, really? A little reverse planning could’ve changed my high school GPA? Maybe so.
Researchers said this happens because when we work backward, our goal seems more realistic, more attainable. When you plan chronologically, you’re operating with a mindset of, “let’s see if I can get there.” When you plan backward, you’re operating with a mindset of, “this will happen, now what do I need to do to make sure it does?” With backward planning, your goal isn’t just a dream, it’s an actual process.
In the study, the subjects who worked backward were also more confident about their choices, which likely gave them the motivation to stick with their goal. They weren’t just driving aimlessly to an aunt’s house. They knew where the endpoint was and how long it would take to get there. It reminds me of this “never give up” image that urges you to keep working toward something because you never know when you’re just one pickaxe swing away from striking diamonds. It’s a powerful image and makes a great point, but damn, can you imagine aimlessly swinging a pickaxe like that? A better bet is to have a concrete plan for your goal so you’re not just exerting energy uselessly.
Applying This to Your Money Goals
Setting goals in reverse is especially useful when it comes to money. I’ve met a number of people who share their dreams of moving to a bigger place or traveling extensively, and they believe those goals are completely out of reach because they could never afford something like that. Meanwhile, they just ordered a $10 glass of wine with me. Don’t worry, I’m not throwing out the stupid avocado toast argument. My point isn’t that you shouldn’t spend $10 on a glass of wine, it’s that you might have more money than you think!
Of course, this isn’t true for everyone, and lots of people are genuinely struggling to make ends meet, a truth that gets underestimated in the personal finance world all the time. However, many people also have so much more opportunity than they think, another truth that’s often underestimated. Let’s say you could “never” afford your dream: a two week trip to Europe. That might be true, but take a look at the numbers just to be sure.
To travel comfortably for two weeks, you should probably budget at least $3k. (Yeah, I know, travel hackers, you could do it for free, but we’re not getting into all that right now.) So start with your endpoint. Let’s say you want to make this happen in two years, save $3,000 by 2020. By 2019, you will need $1,500, which means you will need $750 by this summer. That means you’ll need to save $125 every month.
Now, $125 isn’t nothing, but it’s easier to figure out how to save $125 in a month than it is to save $3,000 in two years, for the simple fact that a month is so much closer to now than two years is. Maybe you could cut back on restaurants and make lunch at home. Maybe you could pick up a side gig. If you think you could do better than that, you could even speed up your goal. And If you think $125 just isn’t realistic, then okay, maybe it will take you three years at $80 a month. It’s just one example, and depending on your goal, yes, it might take a while. The point is, it’s a lot easier to stick to your lifelong goal to visit Europe if you know when it’s actually going to happen. Most importantly, you’re not resigned to the backseat, bored and aimless, asking, “am I there yet?”
Latest posts by Kristin Wong (see all)
- The Buyerarchy of Needs: A Practical Guide to Spending Money - February 8, 2018
- Plan Your Money Goals Backwards - January 25, 2018
- You Can’t Buy Your Way to Better Habits - January 18, 2018