Why you should move past goal setting and try fear setting

Why you should move past goal setting and try fear setting

No doubt you’re familiar with goal setting, that painless process of envisioning a brighter future. In this pleasing exercise, you picture a wealthier and happier you.

If you really want to make mental progress, you should tackle another process, one that’s the opposite of goal setting, and not such a feel-good exercise. It’s known as fear setting, and it’s a powerful way to hack the human psyche.

In fear setting, you specify exactly what you’re scared of. Maybe it’s losing your job, or going broke, or being so destitute at age 90 that you subsist on free bologna sandwiches from the local senior center.

Whatever your deepest, darkest dreads, fear setting forces you to acknowledge them, and then confront them. But a funny thing happens when you wallow in your deepest fears – they start to lose their grip on you.

This might seem like contrarian advice.

Ever since The Power of Positive Thinking, self-help gurus have espoused the magic of good thoughts and only good thoughts. The biological reality, though, is that the human brain is wired for fear.

Consider Tim Ferriss, the best-selling author and prominent podcaster – he’s a big fan of fear setting. In a TED Talk, Ferriss described using fear setting to cope with bipolar disorder and suicidal episodes.

Ferriss describes the process as putting your fears under a microscope. By examining and dissecting them, you can deal with your fears.

“I can trace all of my biggest wins and all of my biggest disasters averted back to doing fear setting at least once a quarter,” Ferriss says.

Writing down your fears is the most crucial part of fear setting. Only by identifying your sources of anxiety and then embracing them can you find a measure of peace.
On the other hand, by trying to ignore your fears, you exist in a state of constant anxiety.


A Three Step Process

The written part of fear setting involves three phases of questions and answers:

  • What is it? Define your fears. Perhaps you’re terrified that you’ll fall in love but won’t live up to your partner’s financial expectations. Maybe it’s having so little money in retirement that you’ll eat cat food to survive. Fears differ at different stages of life, but they’re always there.

  • How can you prevent it? You probably can ward off the worst of your fears. If a lack of liquidity has you down, you can start budgeting and saving. If running out of money in retirement terrifies you, a logical and disciplined financial plan can help ease your worries.

  • What can you do about it? If your worst fear were to come true, then what? This part of written fear setting can help you work through your feelings by letting you describe how you’d fix the problem if it were to occur.

For many people, simply building a cash cushion eases financial fears. If you know you can weather a job loss without becoming homeless, you’ll feel a bit more at ease.

It’s important to isolate your fears into the categories of what you can control and what you can’t. You can dictate your patterns of saving, spending and investing. As for the direction of the stock market or the economy, that’s out of your hands.

If you’re still not sold on fear setting, Ferriss says you should consider the alternative – not confronting your fears means you’re doomed to remain terrified of them.

“Humans are very good at considering what might go wrong if we try something new, say ask for a raise,” Ferris says. “What we don’t often consider is the atrocious cost of the status quo.”

Ferriss offers a workaround. Ask yourself, “If I avoid an action or decision because I’m scared, what might my life look like?”


Learn More

View our collection of articles about goal setting.


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