When I was working and teaching at NJIT, I learned about reverse engineering, also called back engineering. It is the process by which a man-made object is deconstructed to reveal its designs, architecture, or to extract knowledge from the object.

I had also learned earlier in my teaching about backward design which is a method of designing educational curriculum by setting goals before choosing instructional methods and forms of assessment.  That seems very logical but in reality much curriculum is done is the “regular” order rather than reverse.

For example, a teacher knows there will be mid-term and final exams. You have a textbook that determines the course content and you always lecture on the fifteen chapters you plan to use.  Your goals? They may not even be clear or stated. If goals ever emerge, it will be a factor of the design, not part of the design.

I’m wondering if those two approaches can be used for non-academic and non-engineering events in our lives. Could you use this “in reverse” approach to do something like a job search?

When you are facing a deadline or you are starting out on something big, you probably approach it by planning from the beginning and then working your way forward. Step one, step two and so on.

Some colleges use backward planning with students to help students reach their goals. Though there are suggested ways to do this, the idea is simple: start with your end goal and then work your way backwards from there to develop a plan of action.

If the goal is to get a new job, what would be the previous step? The interview? Maybe, but thinking backwards, perhaps it is the job offer. Do you have in mind what salary, benefits and work conditions you would accept?

Some of the research on reverse planning has shown enhanced student motivation and perception, and also changed the actual outcome by improving student grades.

In the end, if you look at backwards and forwards plans tend to look pretty similar, but the process in each is what differs.

When you focus on the end goal, you use your imagination to think of future events as if they already happened. This can help you visualize the steps you need to take. Researchers refer to this as “future retrospection” and it can increase our anticipation of pleasure from achieving our goal.

Start with the end goal
Outline clear steps
Focus on the process
Visualize a positive outcome

That last step is probably the oddest one. When you visualize a positive outcome, like getting that job offer, you can feel closer to that goal than if you focus on all the steps to come and all the problems that might occur.

It sounds so simple. The first time I thought about visualizing a positive outcome to a goal, it felt a bit like believing in magic. It made me think of guided imagery, a technique that I tried unsuccessfully many years ago. It is not the same thing, but they do share the optimistic and positive approach of starting with the notion that you will reach your goal.