Hint: Start at the end and work backward
If you could listen to country music songs backward, the old joke goes, life is great. You get your wife back, your trailer back, your dog back, and your job back.
It’s obviously intended to be a jab at the country music tradition of sad storylines. Broken hearts, broken dreams in a puddle of beer.
If you like country music, don’t get mad at me. I do too. It’s an art that favors great storytelling. But let’s face it, many of the stories are pretty sad. And if we consider the vision of these stories, in many cases, they’re not so pretty.
There is some hidden wisdom in this witticism about setting a life vision though. Even if it is unintentional.
It applies to any long term goal or plan and it is this : If you have a clear, compelling vision for where you want to go, work backward to figure out how to get there.
Think about why this might be.
A long term goal should be big.
If the goal isn’t big by today’s standards, why should it take a long time?
If your goal is weight loss, you don’t say ‘my long term goal is to lose 3 pounds.’
If your goal is to earn more money, you don’t say ‘my long term goal is to make 1% more than I am making now.’
If your goal is to have more quality time with people you love, you don’t say ‘my long term goal is to go out to dinner with my friends and family.’
Those could be great short term goals. Why? Because they are achievable pretty quickly with a little discipline and effort. They don’t intimidate you.
Long term goals should be scary. Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG).
So big that we need to work backward in order to achieve them. How does that work?
You keep breaking actions down further and further into bite-sized chunks in order to progress toward that big, daunting, intimidating vision.
Let’s say that you want to own your own marketing company in 5 years that generates $1,000,000 in earnings. And today you are a freelancer who writes copy. Enough to support yourself but no more. If $1,000,000 in earnings scares you, let’s start there.
You cannot get there by thinking of every single activity you need to do between now and then to make that vision a reality. You start with the end goal and then work backward.
What does that look like?
We’ve already established that your vision is 5 years out. In practice, I would define a long term vision as anything consisting of 3–10 years into the future. We live in a world that sometimes views next week as long term. It needs to be far enough from now that it requires serious planning.
To do serious planning, you need to do serious thought. There is no part of this process that is more important than crafting a real vision. It needs to be specific.
Vague visions aren’t visions.
Our marketing company example did have a specific earnings goal. That’s great. But nothing else. Vision needs to get specific. Who does this company serve? How many employees are there? Where will the office be? Drilling this down to be as specific as possible.
You are not done with vision until there is a clear and definite picture in your mind and in writing.
It’s called vision because you need to actually see it.
Once you’ve done that, take a step backward to themes.
Themes are goals and objectives that take place from a few months to a year. They are bigger than a set of individual tasks but not big enough to be a long term vision. We can think of these as mid-term goals and objectives.
You should have one vision that breaks down into multiple themes.
At any time over the next 5 years that you have defined for your vision, you would be working under 3–5 themes.
Let’s say that the marketing company visioning work led to a specialization in serving mid and large size veterinary practices with their branding strategy. What themes might you start with? What Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) would you use to judge progress on those objectives?
One theme might be to package your services as a product offering rather than as freelance. This might enable you to bill for your services in advance rather than arrears. Another theme might be documentation. In order to scale your business, you are going to need repeatable, documented processes.
Now you’ve established some themes to work on over the next year. You can further break these goals down into projects under the themes.
Projects are goals and objectives that may last for 90 days or so. Your themes will help guide you and prioritize what projects you might focus on to get improve the scorecard on your designated KPIs.
You are now at a scale of goal and objective that you can actually conceive of while you’re engaged in it.
And it all ties directly back to the vision you did the work on initially. At the project level, it really starts to become evident why we emphasize putting so much work into crafting a vision.
Many of us in life and business start projects seem important and productive. If these projects are unmoored to an overarching vision (and to medium-term themes), though, they can cause us to drift.
We work hard. We feel productive. But we’re not achieving real progress because we have no map of where we are going.
Like themes over a year, we probably don’t want to be working on too many projects at once. 3–5 at a time should be the maximum range. Remember these are things you plan to get completed over the next 90 days.
Documentation projects our veterinary brand consulting company could be working on over 90 days are company handbooks, design process details, and marketing materials to sell the newly documented process. Having established these projects, we can now break them down into their constituent tasks.
Tasks are individual activities that make up each project. They should be specific in terms of what deliverable is required. And they should also clearly delineate who is responsible for completing them.
You are now a freelancer so many of these individual tasks in the early going are going to be assigned to you. Know your bandwidth. Be reasonable but diligent about how much time it will take to accomplish each one. Some of these won’t be easy.
The tasks are digestible because you’re not worried about the thousand other things you need to be doing.
This cannot be stressed enough. You can’t work on more than 5 things at once and probably not even that many. Definitely not a thousand. You are now taking on this big, huge, scary dream in a systematic way. There’s more joy in feeling secure in knowing that the things you are working on are enough for this moment.
You are working on the specific tasks you have identified to advance your project.
Which advances your theme.
And gets you ever closer to your vision.
Which you designed.
So your storyline won’t have a country music ending.
How have how crafted your vision? Do you start with the end in mind? Share your thoughts.