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October 23, 2017
Tom Snee

Starting a project near the finish and working backward can be an effective way to plan and stay motivated, according to a new study from the University of Iowa. 

The study found that when people develop a plan by starting from the finish and working backward, they are more likely to stay motivated and finish it than people who plan from the starting point. 

Researchers conducted a number of experiments that asked students to plan their approach to various tasks, such as studying for a test or a job interview. Some planned from the start, others from the finish. The students were then asked to score their motivation to work on the project as they proceeded.  

Tippie College of Business doctoral alumni Jooyoung Park and Fang-Chi Lu, along with William Hedgcock, associate professor of marketing, say that backward planners also are more likely to stay focused enough to stick to their plans, and felt less time pressure to complete the project.  

The authors say no significant differences were found when planning relatively simple projects.  

Hedgcock points to earlier research that found people are most motivated during a project at the start and near the finish. Planning from the finish provides a map for people to follow to the goal, which keeps them motivated. 

He says planning from the finish also allows the imagination to work as a motivating tool. Existing research shows imagination can motivate people because it allows them to look back on past events. By planning from the finish, people can visualize the goal and the steps needed to get there as if the goal already has been achieved. 

Hedgcock’s paper, “Relative Effects of Forward and Backward Planning on Goal Pursuit,” was co-authored by Tippie alumni Jooyoung Park at Peking University HSBC Business School and Fang-Chi Lu at the Korea University Business School, and is published in the current issue of Psychological Science. It’s available online at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797617715510