Pre-Mortem: A Tool That Help You Achieve Your Dream

During a talk, Guy Kawasaki, best known as a marketing genius that has worked at Apple, has talked about performing a pre-mortem for a project at work.   Instead of doing a post-mortem, which means to investigate on the reason of death after someone dies, doing a pre-mortem means finding out the potential reason for a future death if it’s going to happen.  Not only that you can apply this tool to projects at work, you can pretty much apply this to pretty much anything in life.  


What is Pre-Mortem?

Remember that the tool pre-mortem can be applied to almost anything in life.  Let’s use a simple example to illustrate what pre-mortem is.  Let’s say your goal is to lose 20 pounds in a year and your plan is to jog for 30 minutes and eat less than a certain calories daily.  To perform a pre-mortem is to ask yourself this question, “One year later, if I fail to lose 20 pounds, what has happened?”  Now, try to think about all the possible things that have caused your failure.  Then, think about the solutions for preventing those things from happening or, ahead of the time, think about what to do if those things happen.  Finally, revise your plan accordingly.  In summary, performing a pre-mortem involves the following steps (given that you already have a goal and a plan):

  1. Ask yourself (and your team if it’s a team project) the question: If I fail to achieve my goal in the future, what has happened?
  2. Write down (and share with your team) all the possible causes
  3. Reflect (and discuss with your team)
  4. Come up with solutions that prevent those possible causes from happening or think about what to do when those causes actually happen
  5. Revise your plan accordingly


When to Use Pre-Mortem?

Perform a pre-mortem for a work project or a life project right after you have come up with your goal and your plan.  Additionally, you may want to do that once every 3 months or once every 6 months because you would likely get more information during the process of the project.  With updated information, you may be able to perform a more realistic pre-mortem.  


Why Use Pre-Mortem?

Daniel Kahneman, a famous psychologist and economist who is the author of the impactful best-selling book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, said in a talk that a pre-mortem is useful because we tend to think overly positive when we start a project.  By thinking about the potential reasons for the death of a project, it can give you a chance to think negatively and help balance the initially overly positive thinking.  In other words, performing a pre-mortem allows you to think more realistically, which increases the chance of achieving your goal.  Also, doing a pre-mortem helps you prevent the death of a project before it happens.  If you don’t lose, there’s a good chance that you are winning.  


Pre-Mortem Example: Writing a Self-Development Book

Goal: Have a Self-Development Book Written in 1 Year

Question to Ask: One year later, if I don’t have a book written, what has most likely happened?

Thinking Process: Here, my goal is to have a book written, it doesn’t have to be a perfect book, so it’s unlikely that I failed to finish the book due to my capability.  Maybe I was just lazy, but lazy is a very clear term.  What does laziness exactly mean?  I prefer to do something more comfortable.  I know that once I start writing for the day, I can feel much better.  I am just reluctant to start.  There is also a good chance that I am too busy with my day job that I can’t find time to write.  I can also be too tired to work on my book after a long day of work.  Things can also get a little boring after a while.  I also have a tendency to start new things before I finish one thing.  


  1. Reluctant to just start writing everyday
  2. Lack of time due to other work
  3. Lack of energy due to other things in work and life
  4. Boredom
  5. Get interested in other projects


  1. Do the writing first thing in the morning.  Do it daily so it would eventually turn into a habit.  
  2. If I really can’t get enough time writing the book due to my other work, I can hire a ghostwriter to turn my point-form ideas into paragraphs.  
  3. I should manage my energy each day.  Doing the book writing before I go to work is a good strategy.  
  4. To avoid getting bored, I should enjoy the process of writing the book a little more.  Celebrating small wins would definitely help.  For each day that I can write for one hour, reward myself.  
  5. To avoid myself getting interested in other projects before I have finished writing my book, I should just pre-decide that I am not going to work on other new projects before my book is done.  

Action Plan:

  1. Write one hour at 6:00am each day
  2. For a day that I have succeeded writing for one hour, I reward myself with my favorite breakfast
  3. If I really can’t find enough time to work due to other things in life, I will hire a ghostwriter to turn my point-form ideas into paragraphs
  4. Stick to this project and not to work on new ones until this one is done


The Art of Neutral Thinking

“Positivity can be dangerous, but what always works is negativity.  I never want to live in negativity, so I stayed in neutral … that’s where I’ve been living ever since.” - Russell Wilson

In the above quote, Russell Wilson reveals that neutral thinking is better than thinking positively or thinking negatively.  Neutral thinking can get you the closest to the reality so you can do the right thing.  


Final Thoughts

Pre-mortem is a tool that isn’t talked about enough.  There are so many books and articles out there that talk about setting goals, planning and executing.  There are lots of things that teach people how to think positively.  We need something that allows us to think negatively so we can think closer to neutral as a result.  If you don’t learn about your potential failure ahead of time, your failure will more than likely happen.  Finally, when you perform a pre-mortem, you are not doing it right if it makes you sad or angry.  The point is to look at your possible obstacles objectively and calmly before they actually happen.  

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