Common sense says making a plan is a good way to reach a goal. But how do you go about making a plan? Starting from the finish and working backward gets the best results, a new study suggests.
Some people make a plan of attack in chronological order. They note the steps they’ll take first, next, and so on. Students preparing for a big exam might plan to do some reading at the outset, then list a bunch of other tasks to accomplish and end with a final review of their notes before the big test. Other people plan backward, starting with a visualization of the end goal—passing the test—then tracing in reverse the steps they would take to get there. According to the research, these backward planners are more likely to stay motivated and accomplish their goal than those who plan from the starting point.
“The interesting aspect of our study is that we studied how people construct plans,” co-author William Hedgcock of the University of Iowa told Education Week. “Prior research has shown that planning affects goal pursuit. We showed how they plan—forward or backward—affects goal pursuit.”
Why do backward planners stay motivated longer than forward planners? Forward planners start too far from the finish line, projecting problems in the way of their goal. But backward planners imagine overcoming potential obstacles ahead of time. This relieves the pressure of trying to complete a project on a deadline. “We found backward planning helped people think about the intermediate steps more clearly,” Hedgcock said.
Hedgcock and his co-authors, marketing professors Jooyoung Park of Peking University and Fang-Chi Lu from Korea University, conducted experiments in which students made plans for tackling real-life goals, like studying for a test or preparing for a job interview. Afterward, students were asked to score their motivation to work on the project by answering questions like “How much effort will you allocate to study for the exam,” using a scale from 1 (a little bit) to 7 (very much).
In one experiment, 53 U.S. undergraduate students planned for an exam for a class in which they were actually enrolled. Each participant was given 15 activities they could do to study for the exam. One group of students was instructed to arrange the activities by working backward from their goal. The other students had to plan the activities in chronological order, starting from the first day of studying. The results were based on how participants answered the motivation questions. Those who planned backward intended to exert more effort than the forward planners to achieve their desired grades.
In another experiment, 60 students at a Chinese business school were asked to imagine they had a job interview at their dream company. They were provided with 15 activities that would help them prepare for the interview and were told to plan the activities in either chronological or reverse chronological order. Based on their responses to the questions afterward, the backward planners reported a greater intention to strive for a successful job interview than those in the forward-planning group.
Even in experiments where participants were not provided with a fixed number of tasks to organize and had to come up with the tasks by themselves, the backward planners still had the greater motivation to achieve their goal and even received better grades. But these results held true only when the plan involved multiple steps, as when studying for a final exam or completing a long-term research project.
“Our findings indicate that planning in reverse chronological order may not only help people have a clearer view of tasks to execute but also improve their actual performance,” the authors write.
The researchers acknowledge that they are not accounting for the predispositions of individual students that might affect motivation, and more research could be done in that direction. Still, they say backward planning can be used to accomplish a range of goals, such as pursuing a college degree, making career choices, or planning a budget. Some teachers even use backward design to plan their lessons.
And while the study focused on college students, the findings could also help high schoolers, Hedgcock said. For students who view an assignment as complex, or who feel their interest lagging halfway through a project, backward planning may help.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.