Move Forward by Working Backward

It’s probably safe to say that, at one point or another, all of us have run into a wall with our work. We’ve all had that terrifying moment of stagnation when we realize the creativity well has run dry, and it only takes a few seconds before our minds become as parched for the once-flowing ideas as our lips would get drinking dust instead of water. It’s a sad state of affairs.

There is a solution to this problem that tends to work pretty well, though, and it’s so simple that it’s easy to overlook. Work backward.

Now, I don’t mean try to type while facing away from your keyboard or to walk backwards while you talk on your mobile phone (though that can be a good way to get inspired). Nay, what I mean is that you need to approach the problem from the opposite direction you were approaching it from before, which means that this tactic will look different to everyone, depending on how they usually tackle a problem.

A simple example: before writing this article, I was trying to come up with something to write about. I was thinking about things I knew a lot about, brainstorming interesting tricks and tips, and mentally going over what friends and colleagues had asked me about recently, as that is where a lot of my material comes from.

Not coming up with anything I could really sink my teeth into, I occupied my hands by flipping through the stockpile of old illustrations I created for an older project (which is where a lot of the illustrations for this site come from). I stopped at one image in particular, and the idea hit me.

“Ah ha!” I announced to no one in particular. “The ant, he is racing against the clock, working harder and harder, which makes the clock go faster and faster. If he really wants to get ahead, he’ll run backward instead, which will save him all the time in the world. Silly ant.”

Within this (fabricated and metaphorical) statement there was a very practical idea; that we can get so caught up in run-run-running forward at breakneck speed that sometimes we don’t realize that we can save time by working backward instead. I was able to cut my brainstorming time in half by starting at what is usually the last step of my article-writing process, choosing the illustration.

Whatever it is you’re working on right now, give it a shot and let me know how it turns out in the comment section below.

15 comments

  1. I suppose it is a bit like Steven Covey habit “start with the end in mind”.

    I think that I do this quite a bit – I get a random idea and then see if I can apply it. The skill here (which I am rubbish at) is having the confidence to bin the idea quickly – it’s all about the editing and believing that another idea will come.

  2. I suppose it is a bit like Steven Covey habit “start with the end in mind”.

    I think that I do this quite a bit – I get a random idea and then see if I can apply it. The skill here (which I am rubbish at) is having the confidence to bin the idea quickly – it’s all about the editing and believing that another idea will come.

  3. @Neil Crump:

    Yeah, being able to trash an idea that isn’t working and moving on quickly is a nice skill to develop, and one that takes quite a bit of confidence and just a bit of masochism to really get fully comfortable with.

    I imagine it could be developed with daily exercises, like quick-format brain-storming sessions with a friend about a fictional business idea or some such. Anyone have experience with training methods of this kind?

  4. @Neil Crump:

    Yeah, being able to trash an idea that isn’t working and moving on quickly is a nice skill to develop, and one that takes quite a bit of confidence and just a bit of masochism to really get fully comfortable with.

    I imagine it could be developed with daily exercises, like quick-format brain-storming sessions with a friend about a fictional business idea or some such. Anyone have experience with training methods of this kind?

  5. “I imagine it could be developed with daily exercises, like quick-format brain-storming sessions with a friend about a fictional business idea or some such. Anyone have experience with training methods of this kind?”

    Yes, this reminds me very much of the principles written about in ‘frustrated songwriter’s handbook’ which in essence tells you to form a group of people, (a writers lodge) where everyone goes away and writes something stupid like 20 complete songs in a 24 hour period, then you all sit around together and listen to each others songs. The whole idea is that you are forcing your way past mind blocks, and it doesn’t matter if you have bad ideas because they just get turfed.

    Maybe the same principles could be applied to brainstorming business ideas etc…. its the whole inverse Parkinson’s law thing I guess.

    __________________________________________________________

    Anyways, I started off by coming to comment on the article before getting side tracked.

    The whole working backwards thing is a great idea…definitely useful for so many things…especially business…its so easy to get caught up in the excitement of starting a business that you forget what your really trying to achieve!

  6. “I imagine it could be developed with daily exercises, like quick-format brain-storming sessions with a friend about a fictional business idea or some such. Anyone have experience with training methods of this kind?”

    Yes, this reminds me very much of the principles written about in ‘frustrated songwriter’s handbook’ which in essence tells you to form a group of people, (a writers lodge) where everyone goes away and writes something stupid like 20 complete songs in a 24 hour period, then you all sit around together and listen to each others songs. The whole idea is that you are forcing your way past mind blocks, and it doesn’t matter if you have bad ideas because they just get turfed.

    Maybe the same principles could be applied to brainstorming business ideas etc…. its the whole inverse Parkinson’s law thing I guess.

    __________________________________________________________

    Anyways, I started off by coming to comment on the article before getting side tracked.

    The whole working backwards thing is a great idea…definitely useful for so many things…especially business…its so easy to get caught up in the excitement of starting a business that you forget what your really trying to achieve!

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  8. @Dan: I love the idea of an entrepreneur’s retreat! Hmm…might be something I’ll have to put together at some point…

  9. @Dan: I love the idea of an entrepreneur’s retreat! Hmm…might be something I’ll have to put together at some point…

  10. I think it was Tyler from Advanced Riskology who said “I work to improve my life, I play to improve my work,” or something like that.

    I think of my best blog posts in the shower or when I’m walking my dog. The technique that I find works is to be busy doing something and the creativity will find it way towards you. It doesn’t work if you go out with the hope that something will hit you, as if you’re climbing a ladder of creativity. Creativity comes to you in bursts. Like walking across a mine field and then exploding at random. The less time you spend thinking about walking in a mine field, the more likely you’ll blow up at random.

    Great post Colin.

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