How to Achieve Your Goals Through Reverse Engineering

Round House - Goroka, Papua New Guinea

Image source: Mark Hayward

Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.” ~ Henry Ford

Are you looking to take lateral action and make a life change of some sort? Why not try a little reverse engineering for your goals?

This article is for anyone who wants to STOP thinking about doing remarkable things and START making them a reality.

Everyone has dreams and goals, but some folks lack a method and vision for success; while others are just plain afraid to pursue their potentially life changing ideas because they are terrified of failure.

When it comes to your goals, I truly believe that there has never been a more perfect time to move beyond fear of failure or social stigma. With the current state of the economy, you almost have nothing to lose by trying.

I am well aware of the uncomfortable feelings, self-doubt and apprehension that can be associated with thoughts of failure, and have found myself in their grip often. But I must say, after years of trial and error and coming up with a system that works for me, I have finally learned to manage and control those uneasy feelings.

My Journey: from New England to New Media Entrepreneur (in the Caribbean)

I was raised in northeastern U.S. (New England) and come from the stock of conservative Puritans and blue-collar workers. All of the friends I grew up with still live within a 20-mile radius of each other. Most of them were never prone to do anything out of the “ordinary.” Except, perhaps, a backpacking trip through Europe after finishing university and before getting married and settling down.

My life turned out a little differently.

After being disillusioned by the corporate lifestyle at an early age, I began to make conscious choices that I believed would allow me to pursue a life that was more aligned with my personal happiness.

At about the same time that I decided I probably was not cut out for corporate culture, the idea of entrepreneurship and owning my own business in the Caribbean started to needle its way into my thoughts, and would eventually become a primary goal in my life.

The struggle of pursuing happiness over career or monetary gain has not always been easy and has included bouts of malaria, racial discrimination, and financial insecurity. However, I believe the results have been worthwhile.

As part of the “stepping stone” path that led me to small business ownership in the Caribbean, I have lived for extended periods in the jungles of Papua New Guinea (Lakekamu Basin) in a location so remote that the world’s first documented poisonous bird, the Pitohui was discovered there. Additionally, I worked as a contracted IT consultant for over five years on both the island of Samoa (in the South Pacific) and in the British Virgin Islands.

When I was growing up, it was practically ingrained into your DNA that you got a job with benefits and stayed there. Forever. On occasion, you might change employers, but you wouldn’t veer far off from your chosen career path.

From early on, whether I wanted to leave university and move to Hawaii, quit my job and join the Peace Corps, or even put life on hold at age thirty to complete a Master’s Degree I was typically met with the response, “Oh, you can’t possibly do that.”

Whether you are a creative type, a traveler, or an entrepreneur looking to start your first business; self-doubt, the safety net of a steady paycheck, and external peer pressure can be crippling. To overcome this, you need a change of mindset. And this is where ‘reverse engineering’ can help.

The Mindset of the Long Distance Runner

I am currently reading the book, “More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way” by Toby Tanser, which is his personal account of investigating why Kenyans dominate the world of distance running.

In the book, Tanser states:

The Kenyans win because they believe that they can and that they deserve to win.

Tanser goes on to clarify for the reader that the belief in their own success is manifested in a very humble and non-egotistical manner where failure simply is not an option.

Specifically, the runners from Kenya don’t think they deserve to win out of arrogance and conceit, but they truly believe if they put in the hard work and commit to the goal and task at hand, then they have as good a chance to win as anybody.

From my own experience, before my wife and I opened our business and settled in our current location on Culebra Island here in the Caribbean, it took us over TEN years of struggling and hard work to get from the idea germination of, “Owning a B&B in the Caribbean” until it came to fruition.

However, not owning our own business in the Caribbean never really entered our minds, we just did what we had to do to progress.

Reverse Engineer Your Way to Success

In technical terms, reverse engineering can be defined in the following manner:

The process of discovering the technological principles of a device, object or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation. It often involves taking something apart and analyzing its workings in detail (source: Wikipedia).

To begin forward momentum, I apply my own interpretation of reverse engineering to my goals; whereby, I analyze and ‘take apart’ precisely what it is I hope to accomplish (start a small biz, lose weight, travel, etc).

More specifically, I attempt to build a framework for success by breaking down, in reverse order (from the very beginning thoughts to goal completion), the steps and tasks that will be required to effectively achieve my ambition.

The four keys to reverse engineering for success are:

  1. Determine the most basic level of the goal.
  2. Ensure that you are committed.
  3. Identify as many steps as possible that are required to reach the goal.
  4. Take action!

I have found that if I start off by visioning a successfully completed goal and imagining what was required to get me there it can help me identify what I need to do.

In order to get started, you begin from the most basic stripped down version of whatever your goal is – – work from home, move to Central America, become a copywriter, a pirate…and break it down to the basic components that are required for you to succeed.

Reverse Engineering A Sample Goal

So how do you put reverse engineering into practice?

Whether you want to move to a different country, run a marathon or make a million dollars the premise is always the same. You start with your specific goal first and work out the steps out in reverse.

For example, here’s what I would do if I wanted to start working from home as a consultant. The example does not include every single step, but should give you an idea of how I would get started towards this goal.

1. Determine the most basic level of the goal.

Work from home as a consultant and earn enough to support basic needs during the first year.

2. Ensure that you are committed.

Do you really hate your job? Will you be better off on you own? Did you answer yes? O.K. then let’s move on.

3. Envision that you have successfully completed your goal.

Ask yourself some simple questions: What did it take to complete that task at hand? What challenges were faced? What type of investment (time & money) was required? From the answers to these questions, you are going to list out all of the steps that you think will be required in order for you to pursue your quest to work from home. The following is what I came up with:

Your goal: Quit current job and start consulting from home.

A. Walk out the front door and don’t look back.

B. Give notice.

C. Decide on date for when to quit?

D. Contingency plan for employment if clients are not forthcoming in six months…

E. What hours will you work?

F. How much to charge? Hourly or flat rate?

G. Draft some keystone content for the blog.

H. Start to put out feelers in your network.

I. Purchase domain and setup website and blog.

J. Is it possible to take a leave of absence from current job? Or, can you begin slowly by starting in your off time at night?

K. What is the cost of health and liability insurance?

L. Where are clients going to come from?

M. What are monthly expenses? Do you have enough savings for six months to a year?

N. Investigate the cost of home office equipment and ongoing peripheral supplies.

O. Begin to tell a few select people about what you hope to do (this makes it real).

P. Do you really have the talent and drive to work from home and make it as a consultant?

Q. (If married) Does your spouse support this goal?

R. How long have you been thinking about this? Is it a whim or the real thing?

S. Be rational and don’t quit right away.

End Reverse Engineering List – You’re Currently: Sitting in cube at work thinking about how to achieve the goal of working from home.

4. Take Action!

Note that while you plan the steps above in the order A-to-S, you execute them in the order S-to-A.

Why it works?

To be sure, ‘reverse engineering’ is a lot like any other planning exercise. Although, I think it has worked for me because instead of just listing out the steps that you think you need at random, you must actually visualize yourself as having completed the goal. Not only does this help by making the objective seem more tangible, but it can also help to put you in the all-important proper mindset to start taking action.

As I am always looking to refine my system and learn, how do you find success and what is the method that you use, when pursuing a goal?

About the author: Mark Hayward hates the snow and cold! But he loves living in the Caribbean, owning his own business and is a co-founder of the nonprofit, Train for Humanity. You can follow him on Twitter @mark_hayward.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Just checked out your place in the caribbean. Looks like a great place to stay.

    A person really can do whatever they want if they’re willing to leave their comfort zone and venture away from what everyone else tells them they can’t do.

    There is a reason everyone else is still stuck in that 9-5 job they hate so much.

  2. Always enjoy you’re writing, Mark. Without a doubt, you lead with your best qualities. Thanks for the post.

  3. Mark – this is a great idea; what I really like is that the intended goal sits neatly at the top of the list. There is a clear progression rather than, as you mentioned, a random list and that means tackling hurdles, creating mini-successes and moving upwards.

    It could be likened to stepping a stage at a time up a ladder. Doubtless there will be times when you slip back down a rung or two yet the goal is always clearly there.

    Thanks for the excellent post

  4. In “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” Steven Covey said to begin with the end in mind. He was talking about the end of our lives, but making a plan for any goal could utilize the same process.

    The important part is to realize your first plan may not have all the answers, but as you put it into play you can make adjustments.

    One way I think of it is if you were sitting in a car and turned the steering wheel from side to side, all you would do is wear out the tires. But if the car is moving, then steering the wheel from side to side could change the direction you’re heading.

    Get the car moving, then worry about steering it once it’s rolling somewhere. Through reverse engineering you might have a good idea of how to get to the destination, but be ready for detours along the way.

    Thanks for the great reminder!

  5. Agreed, the end goal has to come first and I think a lot of people who never achieve what it is that they truly want, is because they don’t spell it out even to themselves, they just hope that one day “things will get better”.

    I worked in a very cut-throat corporate industry and asked a colleague one day what he thought he’d be doing in a few years. he responded:

    “The same thing I guess, waiting for the boss to pull a big deal so I might get a big payout.”

    It was just one of the responses that cemented my decision to leave.

    Without any clear direction, we are also vulnerable to the whims and influences of those around us, and place high expectations for our own life in the hands of others rather than steering our own course.

    On a practical note, I find mindmaps very useful for the early stage of brainstorming required steps to take towards a goal, as our minds tend not to work in a linear fashion and mind maps allow you to empty your thoughts in a structure that can then be used to forumalte your plan of action.

    Great post as always!

  6. “you must actually visualize yourself as having completed the goa”

    That helps in another way too. By focusing your subconscious on your desires, it will help you by noticing things you might otherwise miss. It will also help you see connections that your conscious mind might not make.

    It’s not mystical new age mumbo-jumbo: your subconscious mind is a very powerful machine. You have to make the ultimate decisions because it can sometimes be as dumb as a post, but if you constantly reinforce it by imagining your goals (and sub-goals) it can help you get there.

  7. @steven – ah yes, busting through the all important ‘comfort zone’ can be difficult!

    @joe – thank you, Joe. Just trying to share what little I know that might be helpful to others…

    @paul – your ladder analogy is fantastic! Sometimes it can feel like I take one step up the proverbial ladder to sliding back down five.

  8. Very good! That is a great way to look at it – many people will find it useful to have the starting process, which is often the hardest part, broken down into steps. It is much easier to get on the path of success when you break it down into small actions! Thanks!

  9. Barbara Sher discusses a similar method in her book “Wishcraft”, and what she found amazing was that when she asked her class to stop just dreaming and actually determine the next few concrete steps they had to take to actually achieve their dreams, they all went quiet and started to look worried.

    So although reverse engineering is a great method, it can make participants become nervous because they are faced with the awesome fact that there is a finite number of steps to take to actually make their dreams a reality – which can be a scarey realisation.

    Although looking at the pictures of your place in Puerto Rico, I’m sure they’d get around to embracing the idea!

  10. That’s a great approach to accomplishing goals.

    You may also want to check out, a very nicely built web app designed for tracking goals and todo lists, and has time tracking. It’s clear, focused, easy to navigate, worth a try.