The Backwards Way to Catapult Forward

Jan 08, 2018

By Jess Hopkins 

 As a coach and a practitioner of positive psychology, I don’t typically encourage my clients to focus on what they hate. And yet, that’s exactly what I’m about to challenge you to do.

Let’s back up for a second. Generally speaking, I’m a firm believer in the famous mantra, “where focus goes, energy flows.” Meaning, if we spend our days fixated on our problems, weaknesses and failures, we are likely to feel unmotivated, unproductive and downright depleted. (Raise your hand if your first response to this is, “Duh.”) And yet, this is precisely how most people operate day in, day out: hyper-focused on all of the things in their lives that aren’t going well.

To be fair, this is largely a result of our inherent negativity bias; two-million years of evolution has makes our brains are hardwired to hunt for possible threats as part of our survival instinct (Vaish, Grossmann & Woodward, 2013). But since we no longer need to worry about fending off an agitated wildebeest, this instinctual mechanism often does more harm than good.

It follows, then, that I frequently teach my clients mindfulness practices that help them to 1) identify when they’re getting hooked by negative thinking, and 2) intentionally redirect their focus towards thoughts that are more useful and productive. In addition, I typically support my clients by helping them to clarify and concretize their most compelling goals in order to drive them towards positive action. Makes sense, no? So why on earth am I asking you to look at what you don’t want?

Inversion is a problem-solving strategy that reverses problems in order to solve them. The process involves reflecting on what you want to avoid in your life, and strategically designing your days to better dodge your biggest bullets. This approach is incredibly simple and strangely powerful—particularly because it’s often easier to generate ideas about what we don’t want than what we do.

For example, consider two business partners who noticed a sad truth about their peers: although they were extremely successful by traditional measures (wealth, luxury, etc.), they were also downright miserable. Overbooked and overworked. Constantly on the road. Relationships in shambles. No quality time with friends or family. 4 hours of sleep per night… Subjectively, living the dream. Objectively, lives falling apart.

Upon further the reflection, the partners noticed that although they hadn’t yet completely sacrificed their quality of life, their days had started filling up with things they didn’t want to do. Stretching themselves a little too thin, doing business with people they didn’t like, and so on. Determined to enjoy their time at work, they set out to find ways to make their days consistently more enjoyable.

So, instead of trying to imagine what a perfect day would look like, they thought about the worst day imaginable and captured the biggest sources of their unhappiness:

  • Endless meetings
  • Dealing with people we don’t like or trust
  • Owing people things / not being in control / obligations
  • Having to be at the office
  • Travel
  • Tired

Working backwards from there, their mission was to generate a list of “anti-goals” that would help them to avoid the things they hated most:

  • Never schedule an in-person meeting when it can otherwise be accomplished via email or phone (or not at all)
  • No business or obligations with people we don’t like—even just a slight bad vibe and it’s a hard no
  • Never give up voting control of our businesses, no favors from people who could need something from us (ensure the rule of reciprocity doesn’t kick in)
  • Work remotely as needed/wanted
  • Video conference or pay for people to come visit us
  • Never schedule morning meetings, sleep in when needed

These anti-goals serve as non-negotiable guard rails that allow the partners to stay in alignment with their values and promote a positive relationship to their work life. Certainly not everyone has the freedom to determine when and where they work, but this example highlights the positive shifts that can result from honing in on the things you want to avoid or prevent—not just the things you want to create or achieve.

Here’s another example that everyone can relate to: productivity. Whether the motivating factor is more quality time with family, hitting bigger business targets or having more free time to pursue meaningful hobbies, most people want to be more efficient with their time.

When looking at productivity goals through the lens of inversion, you begin by asking questions like, “What if I wanted to decrease my focus? What would I do? What distracts me now and what has the potential to distract me in the future?” The answers to these questions can help you create a roadmap for avoiding potholes, thereby improving efficiency and productivity.

One of the most valuable aspects of inversion is best understood by this general principle: blindly chasing success can have serious consequences, but preventing failure usually carries very little risk. For example, someone who is blindly chasing greater productivity might turn to strategies like taking stimulants or working 80 hours a week to achieve their goals. These risky approaches may produce the desired results, but they are also unsustainable and carry serious potential consequences. Conversely, there is very little danger in identifying preventative strategies for greater productivity like turning your phone off, blocking social media websites, or taking the batteries out of your TV remote.

Inversion puts a spotlight on traps and roadblocks, proving that you can learn just as much from identifying what doesn't work as you can from spotting what does. Warren Buffet famously said, “[My partner] Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them.” Inversion is not about identifying direct pathways towards goal attainment. Rather, it sets you up for long term success by teaching you to mine for all of the hurdles that will undoubtedly get in the way.

About the Author

Jess Hopkins is a Positive Psychology coach, speaker and trainer, working to maximize workplace well-being and performance. As a twice-certified Life Purpose and Career Coach, with dual masters degrees in Counseling and Applied Positive Psychology, Jess is committed to affecting positive change within organizations that are driven by passion and purpose. For more information, please visit

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