There’s a peculiar saying that I often stumble across on the internet. About how to eat an elephant (the answer: one bite at a time – though does anybody actually eat elephants?).

The point of the saying is that we can more effectively manage big, huge, gnarly, complex projects and avoid getting overwhelmed or paralyzed if we divide the task into little tiny pieces.

Like preparing for an international competition. Or two orchestra auditions with different lists within two weeks of each other.

So sure, breaking it down into little tiny bites makes a ton of sense. But sometimes, the hardest part is knowing where to start. I mean, what exactly should I do first? Gather a bunch of recordings together? Figure out which edition of the score to use? And which piece or excerpts should I work on first? The most unfamiliar ones? The hardest ones? Or do I start by emphasizing etudes and fundamentals?

How can I make sure I start off on the right path, and ensure that everything will be learned in time?

An Olympian’s perspective on goal-setting

Jenny Keim Johansen is a 2-time Olympic diver, and represented the US in both the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics. She recently spoke with a group of young athletes about what it takes to be successful at the elite international level, and the very first topic she brought up was…goal-setting.

Specifically, she emphasized that planning out goals for just this year is not enough. That every athlete in the room should be planning this year’s goals with Tokyo in 2020 or Paris in 2024 in mind. Where each season becomes a steppingstone to the next one, systematically laying a foundation to work from in each subsequent season.

But more intriguingly, she encouraged the athletes to plan backwards from the Olympics. To determine exactly what skills they would need in order to compete in 2020 or 2024, and work backwards from that point to the present day. Which of course is the opposite of the more normal way of doing things, which would be to figure out what needs to happen today, and work forward from there.

Working backwards certainly sounds intriguing, but is backward-planning really more likely to lead to success than forward-planning? Or is it enough that we simply take the time to do any planning at all?

Backward-planning…on motivation

A team of researchers recruited 53 undergraduate students to create a study plan for an upcoming exam in one of their classes. They were given a list of 15 specific study activities (like “read chapter 7,” or “review all lecture notes,” or “memorize key concepts”), and then about half (the forward-planning group) were asked to make study plans in chronological order, beginning with the task they’d complete first, all the way up to the last thing they’d do on the day before the exam.

The other half (the backward-planning group) made study plans in reverse, starting with the last thing they’d do on the day before an exam, and ending with the first thing they’d do in the present day.

Then they were asked to respond to questions about motivation, like “How much effort will you allocate to study for the exam.”

And wouldn’t you know it, the students who planned backwards seemed to be more motivated to study than those who planned forward – with motivation scores of 6.4 vs. 5.58 (where 1=a little bit, and 7=very much).

…on follow-through

Of course, as I’ve learned from observing my kids, saying you’re going to study, and actually studying are two different things (hmm…where could they possibly have gotten it from?), so the researchers did a second study to see who would actually follow through.

This time they recruited a new set of students, and asked each to create a 7-day study plan for all of their class assignments due in the next week. Students listed a) each assignment, project, or quiz, as well as b) the specific tasks they would undertake to prepare for these assignments (like meeting with team members, copying down key concepts, reading the textbook, etc.), and c) on which day they would complete each task.

The researchers followed-up with each student several times during the week to check up on their progress, and once again, backward-planning seemed to pay off. The backward-planners completed 90.98% of their planned tasks, compared with only 78.97% for the forward-planning folks.

…and on actual test performance

Ok, so backward-planning seems to affect motivation as well as follow-through. But what about actual test performance? Does this type of planning make a meaningful difference on test day?

Researchers recruited 111 students at two different universities to create a study plan just like in the first study, where they were given a list of study tasks, and asked to organize these tasks either chronologically, or in reverse.

And yet again, backward planning came out on top. The backward-planners got an average grade of 81.86% on the exam, compared to 78.70% for the forward-planners.


Why would backward planning make such a difference, not just in motivation and follow-through, but performance too?

There are a few things that could contribute to this, but the researchers note that one factor is the clarity that backwards-planning provides.

When you plan forwards, it always seems that there are a million different things you could do first. And consequently, a whole slew of different paths you could take forward towards your goal. Which can make it difficult to get started, and gain clarity about how best to proceed.

On the other hand, when you plan backwards, you start with the goal already having been achieved, which makes it easier to figure out what had to have happened right before realizing the goal. And then the thing that had to happen right before that. And before that, and so on, until you end up at today.

Take action

This seems to work best for complex goals and situations, like preparing for auditions, competitions, and recitals. So if you have something big coming up, try working backwards from audition day, and see if that helps make it easier to map out your preparation.

And though this would be a more involved project, I’d be super curious to see what would happen if someone approached their undergraduate years like an Olympian approaches preparation for the next Olympics. Treating each year as a “season,” and aiming to use each season to prepare for the next, with an eye on some specific goal at the culmination of their four years.

Because, embarrassingly, my goal entering college – to the degree that I had one – was simply to “get good,” and “win a big competition.” And I don’t know that I had much of a plan for accomplishing this, aside from “practice hard.”


Of course, I suppose it’s never too late to create some goals. And maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we all took a little time to create goals of our own for 2020 and engage in some backward-planning to map out how to get here from there…?