Resources Newsletter Archive Issue 13, April 2001

Issue 13, April 2001

  • Plan Backward From Your Goal

Making The Hours of Your Life Worth More™

Issue # 13
Plan Backward From Your Goal


ARTICLE SUMMARY: In difficult circumstances, our view of "reality" can make obstacles to reaching our goals appear insurmountable. Planning backward from your goal is offered as a strategy to use when you feel trapped and can't see a way out. It can enable you to create new possibilities for achieving your most important goals.



Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., Editor
Ellen is the founder of™ Personal and Career Coaching for Lawyers Determined to Achieve Professional Success AND a Fulfilling Life



Most attorneys -- especially women -- live impossibly busy lives. Finding a balance between work and life without sacrificing professional success, deciding on the best practice area or work setting, and making career transitions can be a daunting task, even for the most gifted and accomplished lawyer.

Just as every person deserves the best possible legal counsel, every attorney deserves professional, dedicated support in accomplishing her most important goals. You know how hard you've worked to get where you are -- you serve others, both personally and professionally. You've earned the right to both career success and a fulfilling life.

This newsletter is intended to help you create a satisfying life -- within, or outside of -- legal practice.


Plan Backward From Your Goal

"We know what we are, not what we may become."

Some people have the wonderful gift of seeing possibilities wherever they look. I recently talked to a businessman who described how he walks around the city and imagines possibilities for the spaces he passes. For instance, he looked into a small grocery and saw a sad merchant, sitting idly on a bench, the shelves full, no customers in the store. Scanning the space, he saw how easily the grocery owner could set up a deli counter. The store was located on a corner surrounded by business and there were few places in the area that served lunch. In his mind, my colleague could imagine employees of nearby businesses coming to the deli to grab a sandwich. People who came for a quick lunch could easily see supplies they'd need for dinner on the grocery's shelves. "Why was the merchant just sitting there?" my associate wondered.

We all know what it's like to be that grocer. We work hard to be successful within our circumstances and means. And sometimes, no matter how hard we try, success eludes us - we feel mired down.

A young attorney recently spoke to me about her difficulties working for two partners who would not work with one another to manage her workload. She'd asked both of them so many times to no avail and didn't know what else to do. Alternative options to open lines of communication were not apparent to her.

Another lawyer expressed frustration that the new associates in his firm did not seem to share his "work ethic." He didn't consider the possibility that he could inspire these associates to be involved and motivated; he didn't imagine himself giving them the "big picture" of the work ahead as he envisioned it. Taking the initiative in this way didn't square with his view of the world and the way things "should be."

We become so used to the framework within which we view the world that we mistake it for reality. There are no alternatives, no possibilities. We feel stuck, trapped.

"Recognizing Pablo Picasso in a train compartment, a man inquired of the artist why he did not paint people 'the way they really are.' Picasso asked what he meant by that expression. The man opened his wallet and took out a snapshot of his wife, saying, 'That's my wife.' Picasso responded, 'Isn't she rather small and flat?' " (1)

Ask yourself what assumptions you hold that make your situation seem as if it "has" to be as it is.

Often, when I coach people who feel stuck and cannot envision ways out, working backward from the goal makes everything easier. It's like trying to find your way out of a complex maze. Sometimes you hit a dead end and can't see how to get out. But if you begin at the end, you can easily work your way back to the beginning.

Here's how to plan backward from your goal:

1. Imagine yourself in the situation you desire. Perhaps you see yourself being made partner in your firm, or being hired as general counsel at a progressive corporation, or being asked to work in the Paris office of your firm. Maybe your goal is to develop a flexible arrangement with your employer so you can spend more time with your family, or arrange to telecommute so you can care for an aging parent. Whatever your goal, pretend you've already accomplished it.

As "touchy-feely" as this may sound, it's useful to write out your description of how it feels to have reached your goal. Describe your surroundings, your colleagues, your day, how your life is different, how you feel.

2. Ignore the voice in your head telling you this is impossible. Think of it as a saboteur - if you listen, you'll never accomplish your goal. That saboteur can't predict the future any better than you or I. You may not be able to avoid hearing that voice, but you don't have to listen.

3. Now work backward from your goal. Ask yourself,

"What would have to have happened just before to allow for this?"

For example, if you've envisioned yourself getting the position you've always wanted in that well-respected and effective non-profit, you probably would have submitted a resume highlighting your environmental law experience and perhaps a few well-chosen contacts on Capitol Hill.

What would have had to happen for you to have these contacts and to have done this work? You would most likely have done some excellent work and made sure the head of the environmental law section in your firm was well aware of it. You then might have requested more challenging and visible assignments in this area.

Maybe you would have spent more time with some colleagues who were active in the campaign of a congressperson frequently sponsoring environmental legislation. Perhaps a friend of a friend knew the member's Legislative Assistant and you asked for an introduction.

You get the idea. You work your way back, step by step, to where you are now.

4. Now you have your plan; that is, you've allowed for many possibilities you'd previously decided were impossible. It will take time, effort, and perseverance to follow each step to completion - but you're a lawyer - you know how to work hard. And if you want a guide and some support - this is exactly what a coach is trained to do.


1. Zander, Rosamund Stone & Zander, Benjamin (2000) "The Art of Possibility - Transforming Professional and Personal Life." Harvard Business School Press, p.11.





BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is published monthly by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., founder of She brings 20 years of experience assisting women attorneys to her work in Lawyers Life Coach™. is a professional and personal coaching firm specializing in working virtually (by phone with email and fax backup) with women attorneys interested in developing strategies to find greater satisfaction in their careers within the law or in exploring career alternatives for lawyers.

Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. established to coach busy lawyers who might benefit from the insights gained from 20 years as a psychologist combined with her experience and familiarity with the legal profession.

Ellen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester and is a managing member of Metropolitan Behavioral Health Care, LLC., a multispecialty, multidisciplinary psychotherapy practice in Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland.

She is a member of the International Coach Federation and a graduate of the MentorCoach Program™.


NOTE: BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a personal consultation with a mental health professional and should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, or other psychological service.



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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D.
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