Ditch the traditional goal setting – here’s what you should be doing this new year

Ditch the traditional goal setting – here’s what you should be doing this new year

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

‘Resilience’ is a term we have come across more often in the last few months in our workplaces, communities, etc. One of my favourite interpretation of resilience is, ‘advancing despite adversity.’

While this has been a topic of focus even before the pandemic, there has been a sudden rise in several companies who have taken measures to address employee wellbeing, mental health, resilience now. Certainly, some of these measures have been proven effective and actually beneficial to the employees. But 2020 is the year that has also seen a surge in Depression. This Google Trends graph below shows the comparison of people worldwide who have searched (using Google) for Depression related search vs Resilience related searches in 2020.

While Singapore had the highest number of Google Searches related to resilience, the ratio against Depression related searches go up to 34:66

While we have all experienced some form of loss during COVID, we are more optimistic than ever to look forward to the dawn of the new year 2021 — for a fresh start, with new sets of goals and dreams to achieve. While the typical goal setting may have been helpful before, studies have shown that continuous tracking of one’s fear improves mental health in the long run. American Entrepreneur Tim Ferris talks about how he moved away from his path towards suicidal thinking — towards different methods of handling ‘chances’ in life.

In this exercise called the ‘Fear Setting,’ Tim differentiates between what one can control and what one cannot and by proactively doing exercises to achieve the former. One way to do this is to visualise the worst-case scenario that you fear, which prevents you from taking action, so that you can in fact, take action. In a typical SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) goal setting process, we define what we want to achieve in a certain span of time. This is driven by what we want success to look like and how to get there. 

But what can be a powerful motivator when it comes to goal setting?

People are more likely to be motivated and more likely to follow through their goals by ‘Fear of losing’ something than the ‘Desire to achieve’ something.

The reason why Fear is powerful is because loss of something creates pain (something that desire will not create, especially not a sense of urgency!) — and pain may sometimes be physical but most often psychological. It’s no wonder that some people find suicide as the only option “out” of a painful situation and when such pain gets too much to bear — life is perceived as not worth surviving. Our instinct is to do anything and everything to eliminate or reduce that pain. Thus, fear can act a very powerful motivator.

Fear Setting — How to set and track your Fears?

Some of the themes centred around the fears we set using this method are conflicts, stressful nature of work, unrewarding workplaces, regrets and living life to the fullest etc. Examples include — What’s the worse that will happen if I don’t confront this behaviour? If I don’t change this job? If I don’t ask for the raise I deserve? If I don’t take a break from my job and do something that I’ve always wanted to do?

In Tim’s words, Fear Setting is “an operating system for thriving in high stress environments.It’s a way to visualise all the bad things that can happen, so one becomes less afraid of taking action.”

Instead of making a checklist of what you want to do (as in any typical goal setting), this new year – make a checklist of what you are afraid to do or what you are afraid will happen to you.

Step 1: Dump your Fears 

Literally, make a list of 5–10 big things that makes you fearful and for each entry — write down in this format:

  • ‘Define’ (What’s the worst that could happen?)
  • ‘Prevent’ (How do I prevent this from happening?) 
  • ‘Repair’ (assuming that the worst happens, how do I fix it?) 

Make sure to remember what you can and cannot control and focus on the actions that you really can. This way, you’re not wasting time worrying about things that you could have literally done nothing to change.

Step 2: Benefits to your action

Imagine that you’ve taken the actions required to prevent your fear from happening, what are the benefits you’ll reap if you were even partially successful?

This is very similar to defining success metrics to your goals and envisioning what does success look like? But the Fear setting actually takes the most conservative approach — that is, even if I’m only least successful or partially successful in preventing something from happening what positives have I gained out of this? This is especially helpful when you feel like you have not achieved anything OR can even act as a driving factor for you to prevent inaction.

Step 3: Cost of Inaction

This is a final and crucial step to fear setting because this makes us think of how do we follow through the actions we’ve listed down in step 1 (& 2). This final step exclusively focuses on — If I basically forget about this list, and not take any action to face these fears, what am I missing out on?

If the fear you’ve specified in step 1 has got repercussions that might potentially impact you beyond 1 year, tweak the template to capture the cost of inaction for 1/3/5 years etc.

The challenge for any goal setting exercise is:

  • The lack of motivation to see through the whole process
  • Doubting the probability of a positive outcome which leads to discontinuity + disregarding goals 
  • Lack of hope and optimism based on truly negative past experiences in life 

While desire is not long lasting, the urgency created by the fear of something really bad happening to us and how badly do we want to avoid something are the elements that truly makes the difference in fear setting. So, trust the process – as you encounter more difficulties along the way, develop the stubbornness to not give up. 

Feel the fear and do it anyway. After all, the only way ahead is forward.

Hamsa Selvam

Hamsa is a psychology enthusiast who seeks the simple truth behind complex mechanisms and complicated situations in life.