While I was in an editorial team in university, we had to participate in a team-building session. We were instructed to divide ourselves into two groups and to each build the highest tower that could support the weight of a marshmallow on top.

With spaghetti sticks. And a long piece of tape.

Now, you may be thinking that it's just a typical team-building session, and you're probably right. But what was fascinating to me was this:

The facilitator told us that all academicians, scientists and high-ranking executives that also participated in the same task failed to build a tower that could support the marshmallow, just like we failed. But the only group to succeed was a group of kindergarteners.

Why did 6-year-olds succeed where adults couldn't?

While we built the base first, they built their tower by starting from the marshmallow. We concentrated more on putting together the spaghetti sticks and placed the marshmallow last.

They took the marshmallow and added spaghetti sticks below it where necessary. Bit by bit, the tower rose - while still supporting the marshmallow.



The result was a wonky-looking building, but it worked! Ours may be prettier, but it crashed down at the last second. In short, ours failed while theirs succeeded.


Reverse-engineer your goals

What that team-building session taught me was that you always have to plan with the goal in mind. You start from the goal to see what's necessary, not do everything that's related and just hope for the best to happen at the end.

You're probably busy with work, studies, or family, so your goal could seem too far away. Or maybe your goal or dream scares you and you don't know where to start.

What if you can wake up and do one thing that will directly help you achieve your goal today?

What I'm telling you right now is becoming successful just like the people you admire is possible. I'm serious. It could be you

The key is to reverse-engineer your goal.

Just like you would break open a radio or toy to see how the parts work, you take apart your goal and see what it's made of. What are the components?

When you can identify the components of your goal, achieving it isn't so far-fetched. It's just a matter of putting the components back together.

Another aspect of it is its effectiveness or efficiency. You want to work on your goal day by day, but not waste time doing things that don't matter. I'm not saying that planning from the bottom up is a bad idea, but more often than not, it's easy to "just do something" without considering how it contributes to your goal.

That's why experts say that reverse-engineering is the most time-effective, cost-effective and energy-effective method of planning out there.


How to reverse-engineer your goals

Step 1: Choose a goal and a timeframe.

First and foremost, you have to choose a goal to work on. I recommend not combining multiple goals in one plan because it can get very confusing. It'll make a better picture if you reverse-engineer your goals one by one.

Your goal has to be SMART - Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Result-oriented and Timely. Without these requirements, it's easy to lose sight of what you're actually working for. A bit more on each of them:

  • Specific: You know exactly what you're working for. E.g. "Setting up a French bakery at Jalan Kucing", instead of just "having an awesome bakery".
  • Measurable: You know what will indicate if you have achieved your goal. E.g. "Profit of RM200,000 for 2016" instead of "being profitable".
  • Attainable: You can achieve the goal without needing an unreasonable amount of funds or resources.
  • Result-oriented: What you will achieve is tangible instead of intangible, like feelings. (It can be a supplementary goal, though)
  • Timely: You have a timeframe for the goal. E.g. 5 years, 3 years, 1 year, 6 months.

Step 2: Write it at the top of a piece of a (big) paper or at the center of a mindmap.

I personally prefer the hierarchy version, but you can go with whatever that feels comfortable to you. You'll need a big piece of paper (drawing block size or bigger) so that you have ample room to branch out your planning. 

If you prefer the mind map version, there are tons of free, online mind-mapping apps like Coggle that you can use instead of paper. The best thing about going digital is that it's nearly impossible to run out of space! The only downside is that it can be too big to print.


Step 3: Break down the goal into components and so on. 

Now here's the most important part. How do you put a big goal on today's to-do list? You can't, unless you break it down into bite-sized pieces.

So you start from the biggest thing (which is the goal) and separate it into smaller components. You take those components and break them down into even smaller components. Then rinse and repeat until you get something that you can complete today. That's how small they have to be.

To make it even clearer, why don't we try it out with an example? Let's say my goal for Narrativity Consultants is to have a Youtube channel with 300 subscribers at the end of one year.


Level 1

First, you break the goal into Level 1 components. As you can see, the components are still quite general and big, which means that you can't complete any of them today. Nonetheless, you know you have to achieve these things to make the goal possible.


Level 2

Next, you break down each of the Level 1 components into Level 2 components. (Here we're only doing it for "high quality videography on a budget") Note that each Level 2 component can be traced directly to the goal. They might not have the word "Youtube" in them, but you know all of them are necessary for a great Youtube channel!


Level 3

Now we break "sturdy & inexpensive equipments" down even further. If you put a finger on any of these Level 3 components, you can still trace it back to the goal. And without them, you can't have "sturdy & inexpensive equipments"!

These components look like they could be completed in a few days. We'll stop here for this article, but for your own plans break it down more until each component can be completed in a day. Use as many levels as you want or as necessary.


Step 4: Add the smallest components into your to-do list.

Now that you have the smallest components you can get, it's time to add them to your to-do list. You can choose to work on the ones that descended from the same Level 1 component, or mix it up with other "descendants".

For example, I can work on researching what experts are using, listing down necessary equipments and setting a budget at the same time. Alternatively, I can work on researching what experts are using coupled with components that descended from "decent videography knowledge" in Level 2.

Once you're done with the smallest, add the next smallest components to your to-do list. You're on a roll, pal!


Important tips for reverse-engineering

1. Learn what's important from a mentor.


Getting a mentor is one of the smartest things you can do in business. A mentor is someone who has succeeded, and who has gone through all the mistakes that you want to avoid making for your business. When you take pointers from them, you're aware of the things you should focus on, right from the very beginning. It's efficient.

Even if your mentor doesn't know you exist, he or she can still make a difference for your business. Read their interviews, blogs, press releases. Listen to them on the radio or their podcasts. Watch their videos. You'll be able to pick up a lot by listening to them or observing how they do things.

This may seem weird, but your mentor can even be somebody you consider a competitor or potential competitor. All that matters is that you're learning from them. Learning is not plagiarizing.


2. Constantly zoom out to see the big picture.


Once your plan starts to have a lot of "branches", it's easy to get lost in between! Although it's good to be very specific about each component, it's bad to be too specific that the components become petty. When you feel yourself starting to nitpick, zoom out.

Look at the plan you've made so far and see if there are branches that you can "trim off". Those branches may be the ones that are too insignificant or ineffective to make a difference to your goal. It doesn't mean that you have to ignore them completely. It just means that you don't need to put them in your plans because you won't be giving them much focus.


3. Set deadlines for every level of tasks.


Eventhough your to-do list is practical, it can be quite a long list. It might even start to look intimidating! The timeframe for the goal that you've set in Step 1 is the biggest deadline. Starting from Level 1 components, set smaller deadlines to get yourself moving and always working on your goal. 

If you're really pressed for time, be realistic about how much you can tick off in a day or a week. What's most important is that you're consistent with your efforts. If you try to complete everything at the last minute, you may overlook some important stuff that could have contributed to your goal. Or worse, you find out that your planning was wrong. Starting early means you have ample time to correct your plans.



Now that you have an incredibly practical to-do list, go forth and act on it! I'm not saying that success magically happens when you have a good plan. It's going to take a lot of your time, energy and patience to work on your goals, regardless. But you know what? If it's too easy to achieve, personal growth wouldn't be possible. Go through some rough patches and slay some dragons to become the kickass entrepreneur you have the potential to be.

What's the goal that you want to turn into a to-do list?