Doing it backwards


I tried doing something backwards this week. I was a little surprised at what I discovered.

It’s routine for me to take a long walk in the early morning. One day this week I reversed the course on one of the routes I’ve walked the same way possibly hundreds of times.

It felt surprisingly different. It was noticing things, like an architectural detail, or the light on a copse of trees, or buildings from a different angle, or the sidewalk ahead past Downtown Crossing. I was more mentally alert. Sometimes it took mental effort to take a turn to stay on the reverse course. I felt a little disoriented. I realized how “on automatic” and unobservant I was when walking the usual way. I experienced a higher sense of energy. I was very aware of what was happening. I was stimulated enough that I took the time to record my thoughts and impressions so I could write about it later.

This was a good thing! By simply reversing my route, I increased my energy, creativity, awareness, and perspective. I’m sure this could work for other walkers, runners, commuters, etc., anyone who follows a course that starts from and returns to the same point, who is feeling unmotivated or unenthusiastic.

It turns out there are some other activities where “doing it backwards” is useful:

Memorizing. I’m a choral singer, and perform without music. Chorus America’s article Should Choruses Memorize their Music suggests the technique of memorizing from the end of a piece to the beginning. I’ll bet the same would work for memorizing a speech, or ritual, or official press comments.

Planning. Sometimes when I’m stumped figuring out what action to take first or next, it’s been helpful to start from the final result and work backwards, as described in the article Use Backwards Planning to Make Sure Your Projects Are Done On Time. You start by defining the last action to take, then what needs to happen before that, etc. until you arrive at the beginning. This concept could apply to any plan, not just projects.

Proofreading. The article Editing and Proofreading from The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill recommends reading backwards to catch spelling errors.

Finding a way through. Richard Riche’s article The Miracle Question for coaching and mentoring points out that in some instances, a coach or mentor helps their client imagine what it will look like “if a miracle happened” and they’re past whatever is holding them back. “Without a clear idea of what you want, change is hard and there can be a tendency to drift through life. Knowing what you want allows you to develop a clear action plan.” It’s helpful to look backwards to imagine what you might have done to get where you powerfully want to be. It’s a change in perspective.

Brainstorming. In a brainstorming session, throw in the question “what if we did it backwards?” and see what happens.

Creating a memorable effect. Michael Jackson’s signature moonwalk move was not original but certainly became a key element of his image and brand. Yoda’s manner of his words backward speaking is another example of creating an image connected to backwardness. (Yoda’s manner of speaking is actually called “fronting” but I digress.) In both cases, it is unexpected, so it sticks. When trying to make an impression, doing something backward could help.

The point is that "backward" is just one of many non-usual ways of experiencing something. When you’re stuck, or bored, or boring, maybe all you need is to try another way.

“Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view." – Yoda