Back From The Future


Back From The Future

January 11, 2021

New Year, Birthday, Graduation — They All Mean Goal-Setting

Like it or not, at the beginning of the year, we experience a line of demarcation in our lives. After all, we both count our own ages and file our experiences according to the year in which things happened. I got my braces in 7th grade and got a car at 16 or graduated medical school in 1995. Those kinds of sorting models lend us a structure to arrange, view and consider both the past and future. And so, we come to the topic of a new year –but it could as easily be a birthday, graduation, ending of a love affair or starting at a new company. All are occasions to think about the future, set goals or assess our current reality and view the future as malleable. We get serious about changing our selves or our circumstances at these points in time.

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The goals that we set for ourselves rarely get accomplished with the ease one might hope. Often, they feel like struggle –like we must exert great effort to fulfill them. But there is a way to set your goals that makes bringing them into reality easier. We can view them with confidence and relaxation rather than with anxiety and uncertainty.

The Struggle Begins

The way we do it ordinarily is like this. Here we are at the start of 2021. What can I do this year? Then we look forward, thinking about how we can undertake the things we want to do. Perhaps we craft a list of goals. But what’s distinct about this view is how hazy the image, and how abstract the objectives seem to be. This is true even if they are “SMART” goals, with metrics and everything. By looking forward from here – the present–a reality in which those accomplishments are mere hopes – it is full of uncertainty.  They’re disconnected from and external to you.

Uncertainty is Scary

You could say that from the perspective of the present it feels impossible to internalize the new behaviors, habits, or actions into the notion you have of your current self. Of course, it is simply true that there is uncertainty about fulfilling any plan. That’s so regardless of how committed to it you are. Outside circumstances could interfere and make it impossible. Lots of business owners and ambitious restaurateurs, artists, performers, and students had that happen to them in 2020. So, of course, there is uncertainty about this year’s goals too.

Barring unforeseen worldwide crises, future-based goal setting eliminates a great deal of uncertainty –at least the uncertainty you yourself insert. That uncertainty emerges from your knowledge of your past track record, any failures you’ve experienced, whether you feel that you have willpower, and any fear you have about really going for it.

The Future in The Present

What does it mean to do anything “future-based? Look at how an Olympic athlete prepares for the most important moment she will ever face – the competition for a gold medal. Athletes practice visualization to prepare. Visualization is the practice of using your mind to imagine every moment of the process you intend, but which has not yet happened. An Olympic diver will visualize the entire process.

He sees himself putting on his swim cap and goggles, then stretching on the deck of the pool. As his turn comes, he imagines himself walking to the diving board and can feel each step up the ladder. He takes a big breath and walks 3 steps to the board –feeling the sensation of his feet on the board, the gentle give of the board’s spring.  And finally, he can feel his legs tense and begin to take one, two, three bounces and his body extends out as he flies into the air, pulling his knees into his chest tightly to flip once, twice, and reach out with his arms and legs to become an arrow piercing the surface of the water. According to a recent paper, “Research has found, and is still finding, that both physical and psychological reactions in certain situations can be improved with guided imagery.”  Our diver is rehearsing the steps and experience of his brain, his body, and his mental state. When the real moment comes it will be deeply familiar, because he has practiced it so many times in his brain.

Time Travel Brain Workout

Visualization in sports, or mental imagery, is a way of conditioning your brain for successful outcomes. “The more you mentally rehearse your performance, the more it becomes habituated in your mind.” The same principles hold true for our non-athletic goals. Will you be saving money, launching a new business, becoming an expert at machine learning, completing a PhD, or training for a marathon? When we visualize these realities in advance, we benefit from building the mental memory of how those experiences felt in our brains, and we bring that experience to the present. It’s more than just a recollection. Our brains build the same neural pathways as we mentally imagine something as we will utilize when we execute that activity.

Instead of sitting here in the present, and looking to an uncertain future, you are visiting the future and experiencing a new reality. It starts will taking yourself to that new reality, at the horizon of its fruition. So, since we’re in January, let’s travel out to 2022.

Back from the Future

Look backwards at the goals that have already been fulfilled from the vantage point of next year at this time. From there begin to fill in the gaps that generate your uncertainty. See yourself completing the first mile of your marathon plan. Or picture yourself amassing the research and proposing the detailed plan of your research to your PhD advisor. As your mind goes through the process of looking backward from that future, you internalize all the steps, experiences, transformative moments that took place along the way.  It’s as though that future has already happened, and now there is only for you to live it.  You are changed in foreseeable ways from 2022 looking back to 2021. Future You has completed those accomplishments and they are under your belt. You are a different person who mentally lived through the year to fulfill your goals.

A Report From the Future

With my executive coaching clients, I actually assign this project. At the end of every year, I ask them to write a letter to themselves from one year in the future. We review that letter and scrutinize what competencies, skills, and personal growth facilitated those accomplishments.  Then we build a plan from there – a structure of actions, habits and routines — desired resources, potential strategic partners, and direction for the year’s work. Instead of the future being an external abstraction we struggle to get to, it is an experience calling us to live it. The future acts like a tracking beam that pulls you forward into fulfilling it. You naturally grow the competencies you need and take the steps to fulfill your goals.

I’m not saying it won’t take effort, energy and focus.  It will. But it will have a different quality because you will have altered your being and situated yourself in that future.

For Your Organization

This is the same process I use with organizational clients who are developing strategic plans. They start from a vision and decide on a scenario leading to that vision. Then we work backwards from the future. It’s called The Merlin Process, and was first described by Charles Smith. It gives rise to a whole new context.  As Smith put it in his landmark paper, “a new cultural reality is created by speaking and behaving as though it were an established fact.”

Whether as individuals or as a team, when we visualize and document it as though it were fact, we are changed. Suddenly the future is real, and we have only to live into it.

I really encourage you to try this. It could make for a transformational year for you and for your organization.


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