Do you remember sitting, wondering should you make that call? It may have been a call to a possible customer or business partner, a potential friend or lover, asking for a favour or giving an apology. Do you remember that tension between what might be and what might not?
And do you remember how many times you never made that call? The times it felt too difficult, complicated, or downright scary to get in touch, ask that question, pursue that goal?
For most of us, the calls we never made hugely outnumber those we did, the risks we never took overwhelm those moments of bravery.
Why do we avoid those calls?
For that matter, why are so many afraid to join that group or start that business?
Perhaps most painful of all, why do so many never contact that special person?
Why do so few people pursue their dreams? Why are we so afraid?
At one level, the answer is simple. Each of those calls represents a dream, a possible future, and every dream is a goal, something to be achieved. Goals are truly powerful but as I explain in What’s Wrong with Goal-Setting, every goal is a two-edged sword that often cuts down more sharply than up. While achieving goals expands our world, every goal has a shadow, a dark side that binds you and keeps your world small.
It’s the dark side of goals that blocks our efforts and prevents us pursuing our dreams.
Or building that business.
Or contacting that special someone.
You don’t have to be an anxious person to know the dark side of goals. Susan Jeffers in her awesome book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, tells multiple stories of people who appeared brave to others while they remained privately terrified. Whether private or not, fears are intimately linked with every goal. That’s because the flipside of every goal is failure. The bigger your goal, the bigger the potential failure, while the more specific your goal, the more precisely you can see what failure looks like.
If that seems surprising, it may help to recall childhood experiences of learning. In Failure Sucks: Seeing Goals Clearly, I explained how it is easy to switch from focusing on what you want to what you don’t want. When you wanted to learn to ride a bike, you also wanted to avoid falling over or riding into obstacles. When you were learning arithmetic, you were also pursuing the negative goal of learning to avoid the wrong answers. Just as every person has a shadow, every goal carries its own version of failure. And the bigger the goal, bigger the failure, and the more reason to be afraid.
There are many paths to success in the face of fear, including the techniques outlined in Failure Sucks: Seeing Goals Clearly, and Chunking to Conquer: Overcoming Procrastination (Now!). Paradoxically, one of the most powerful focuses on fear itself, which is why it is often called Fear-Setting.
Also known as Implementation Intentions, Fear-Setting helps people achieve goals by deeply exploring their fears. The earliest versions of Fear-Setting are ancient but this is not one of those traditional cures that ignore science — instead, Fear-Setting is strongly supported by current research. That research shows Fear-Setting leads to far greater success with goals, ranging from changing bad habits to organisational innovations.
One of the reasons Fear-Setting works is it shifts your point of comparison. Where goals get you thinking about the gap between where you are and where you want to be, consciously focusing on fears highlights everything that is better than the worst-case. In other words, if you use Fear-Setting, almost anything that happens will feel like a bit of a win, not a loss. And when combined with Goal-Setting, Fear-Setting becomes a powerful method for achieving what you want while managing your emotions.
What do you mean by “Fear-Setting”?
Both Goal-Setting and Fear-Setting ask you to be very specific about your possible future, but where Goal-Setting emphasises what you hope for if things go right, with Fear-Setting, you focus on everything that could possibly go wrong. With Goal-Setting, people are told to write SMART goals that are:
Like Goal-Setting, Fear-Setting works better when you are more thorough and specific, including listing fears that seem silly and unlikely, including the worst possible thing that might happen. It even helps to list other people’s fears with regards to your goal, so if Mum and Dad are worried you are throwing your life away, list that as well. To help you be thorough, try listing your WORST fears, those that are:
Worst-case outcomes: what might happen if everything goes wrong
Other people’s fears: all those scary things people have said or might say
Reasonable fears: the things you were likely to prepare for, anyway
Silly fears: your most neurotic fears, like ‘everyone will think I’m stupid’
Tensions & anxieties: those vague, general feelings that something will go wrong
Recording these fears is the first step in confronting them, without which they will keep lurking in the back of your mind like the dark shadows they are. This suggestion is a lot like Dave Allen’s advice in Getting Things Done, where he tells people to record things so they no longer keep them in their minds.
Once you’ve recorded your WORST fears, revise them using as much detail as possible. So, if your worst-case scenario is ‘everyone will think I’m stupid’, list the people you fear will think you’re stupid and what it will mean for you if they do. And don’t tread lightly — Fear-Setting works best when your fears are at their worst.
After revising your fears, it’s time to do a thorough analysis. This is where a spreadsheet or some type of table can be useful, but many people are happier with simply writing the analysis after the fear. To analyse each fear, you need to consider the following points.
1. Likelihood: What is the probability of the fear becoming true, from 0 (not at all likely) to 10 (certain to occur)
2. Prevention: What practical steps can be taken to prevent the fear becoming true
3. Repair: If the fear becomes true, what practical steps will fix or at least partly repair things. These repairs should be written as “If … (insert the feared event here) … , I/We will … (insert the practical repair steps here) … . For example, ‘If Mum says I was stupid, I’ll remind myself that’s just her opinion and tell her I’m glad I tried something new.’
4. Worst-case benefits: Describe in detail the benefits you will get even if the worst possible situation arises (e.g., a failed project often produces great learning)
5. Costs of inaction: What are the consequences of not trying? It’s worth considering short, medium, and long-term consequences of doing nothing.
Once you’ve analysed each fear, it’s time to revise your goals and plans. Make sure to record the prevention and repair steps someplace they will be readily noticed when working towards the goal, and regularly review these and, if necessary, revise them. That way, you’ll be ready if your fears come true.
Of course, sometimes you’ll list a fear that is truly dreadful and likely enough that it cannot be ignored. For example, some actions may risk serious injury or someone’s survival, either literally or financially. In those cases, Fear-Setting is especially helpful because it will make clear your fears are reasonable and the goal is not worth pursuing. At least it’s not worth pursuing without making things safe for yourself and others.
Can Fear be a Super-Power?
Fear is usually associated with the three F’s: fighting, fleeing, or freezing. In other words, fear usually reduces our options to the simplest, most immediate response, the quickest way to remove whatever makes us afraid. Fighting happens when fear becomes anger, which arises when we think we can overwhelm what we fear, while fleeing handles fear by removing ourselves from whatever might harm us. Freezing (also known as being petrified) is what we do when can neither fight nor flee, instead hoping that by keeping still we will remain unnoticed, and the fearful event will pass us by.
Each of the three F’s are a reaction to something nasty, an attempt to avoid losing or experiencing something, so each of them come from a position of potential powerlessness. Like the three F’s, Fear-Setting manages our fears but does so by transforming the fears themselves into positive actions, things we can do to create a future rather than avoid one. That’s how Fear-Setting makes fear a super-power, something that reveals opportunities for actions we can take to make a better world for ourselves and those around us.
The biggest downside with Fear-Setting is that it can take a lot of time, so it is often used only for your biggest, most important goals. You may find it especially useful when deciding if and how you will pursue big opportunities, like a new career, a new business, or a new life-partner. But there are alternative ways of using Fear-Setting, including ignoring the goals and focusing on one of your fears at a time. So, you might use Fear-Setting on your financial fears this week, before reviewing your fears of personal rejection next week. In effect, that’s a way of using Fear-Setting on Fear-Setting itself by addressing the fear it may consume too much time.
Whichever way you use it, Fear-Setting is one of the most profoundly useful tools available for any person, team, or organisation in the face of an uncertain future. Many people have found that Fear-Setting is lifechanging. If you want an example, watch Tim Ferris talk about how he learnt to use this ancient yet modern technique.