Start Planning Your Future at the Finish

Projecting what we'll be doing in a few months, let alone several years from now, is challenging. Plans change, new opportunities arise, and circumstances take unanticipated turns. Years ago a wise expert in corporate coaching advised me to turn the crystal ball-gazing process on its head. "Focus exclusively on your long range goals and work backward," he advised. "By starting at the finish, you'll enrich yourself with the focus and tenacity necessary to understand fully what it will take to achieve your dreams."

I've repeatedly seen this technique achieve results. For example, a former client was amazed to see his progress in just a year after imagining a satisfactory culmination of his professional life. Charles was 26 and already had an MBA and a promising career as a systems engineer going for him. His end goal was to own an engineering company and be able to retire at 40.

By applying the principles of fast-forward thinking ahead to what it would be like to run his own engineering practice, Charles realized he'd need strong managerial experience to understand the dynamics of leading a team of employees. Using his highly positive performance reviews as leverage, he campaigned for project management assignments. Impressed with his ambition but unsure Charles could rise to the occasion, his boss purposefully placed him in a tough situation to test his mettle. Several colleagues made no secret that they felt he was biting off too much too soon. Emboldened by his master plan for career success, Charles not only didn't fail; he did an excellent job and was promoted again in a year. Today he's biding his time for the economy to recover fully before making the leap to hanging out his own shingle.

Try these exercises yourself and use them to take the first steps back to the present from your fully realized future:

Be Clear About the Desired Finish: Take a deep breath and determine what you want to accomplish. Be completely honest and realistic about the skills you possess (or can improve) to get there. Write your specific objectives down. Without a clear, specific target to move toward, it's easy to become distracted and get off course. You will be amazed by your progress within mere months after setting your goals. Be sure to envision what your entire life—not just your career—will look like at the finish.

Visualize the Roadblocks: Nothing goes exactly according to plan, and the pathways of our lives contain hidden pitfalls and unforeseen potholes. Recall the challenges you've already encountered and then envision those yet to confront you. Think about what keeps you awake at night now and project how these same obstacles might grow over time or evolve into new hazards to your success. Remember: Being forewarned is being forearmed.

Shore Up Your War Chest of Skills: Everything you've learned and accomplished until now has made you a savvier, more streetwise person than you were the day you graduated. Make a clear-eyed assessment of what abilities or attributes you still lack. The world is in a state of constant transformation, so it's likely you can acquire expertise in areas you've ignored. Research professional development seminars in your area and take a look at the current coursework of colleges and universities. Ask yourself what curriculum you would choose if you were a freshman today.

Remain Flexible: Change is good, even when it comes to the commitments we make. As time goes by, it will likely become necessary to modify your plans. You always reserve the right to adjust the end point, especially if it will sharpen your focus and improve the progress you're making. Just be sure it's a conscious process rather than by chance or a lack of resolve. Reassessment does not equal defeat.

Assume Success Will Come: Fear of the unknown tends to inhibit us and dampen our ability to strategize. If a sports team knew in advance that victory was assured, imagine how much more confident and masterfully the members would play. A successful client once told me that when she confronted some of the underlying (and unfounded) beliefs she had about herself, her habit of sabotaging her plans evaporated. Remove headwinds and move ahead.

Embrace Uncertainty: Don't be surprised if you suddenly discover you're uncomfortable doing the soul searching necessary to move forward. For many of us, self-examination stirs up buried emotions and long-deferred plans. In your subconscious, the past may seem synonymous with pain and the future with the unknown. Entering uncharted territory—or personal terrain that is all too familiar—can understandably cause uneasiness. Remind yourself of the rewards yet to come, such as expanding your self-awareness, which by itself is invaluable. Don't be surprised if within a short while you hear yourself thinking, "Wow, I'm no longer uncomfortable at all doing this!"

Start Immediately: Determine what core actions you can take in the next week that will take you closer to your end goal. Then do them. Repeat this exercise every two weeks. Most clients say they do this better if they have a friend, coach, or accountability partner to whom they are answerable. One of my most successful clients said, "Had I not had you to hold me to my commitments, I would not have had the focus and tenacity to have accomplished this as quickly as I did." This may be the most important commitment you ever make to yourself, so honor your pledge to complete each task and meet every self-determined deadline.

The bottom line: Whether you're working on meeting a short-term goal or lifelong ambition, or simply are intent on becoming a happier, more fulfilled person, the act of imagining yourself crossing the finish line while you're exploding out of the starting blocks puts you that much closer to making it happen.

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