‘Fear-setting’ sounds like a black sheep of the goal-setting family.
But it’s actually a way to improve your entire life.
If you’ve just come out from under a rock, welcome back. Tim Ferriss is this guy who wrote a book called ‘The 4 Hour Workweek’. It changed the way we think about work, life, and everything in between.
Ferriss was deciding whether to take a short trip to London. He wanted to try out removing himself as the bottleneck in his own company.
The month-long trip became 18 months of adventure, travel, and learning. The company became more profitable and his entire life improved. Then he wrote the book and hasn’t looked back since.
Fear-setting was the tool that enabled it all. It produced his ‘biggest business and personal success’.
Everyone has things they want to do. Some figured out what their ideal life looks like. A tiny, tiny percentage of people actually go and do it.
The rest stay in jobs they don’t find fulfilling. They avoid risk, play it safe. Wait for tomorrow. Save money first.
They make excuses and avoid action.
Because doing what you truly want is frightening. Quitting a job is frightening.
Leaving a comfy home and wandering the world is frightening.
Making big decisions under stress is – yep – frightening.
People don’t do what they want because of fear.
Fear of what?
Failure? The unknown? Change?
Half the time we don’t even know what the fear is. It consumes people and their choices.
Fear-setting is the best way to acknowledge this, and then overcome it – rationally.
Which makes fear-setting your best ticket to the life of your dreams, one decision at a time.
What is Fear-Setting?
Fear-setting is a decision-making tool for high-stakes situations. Tim Ferriss uses it to “avoid self-destruction, and make business decisions.” The key idea is that visualizing the worst-case outcomes lets you handle them rationally.
There are 3 stages in fear-setting for any decision:
- Defining fears
- Predicting the benefits of attempting an action
- Calculating the costs of doing nothing
It’s easier to choose actions once you visualize worst-case scenarios and ways to avoid them. It’s even easier when you can show the benefits of even just attempting the action.
If you add the real cost of doing nothing on top, overcoming fear is a piece of cake.
Why Does Fear-Setting Work?
The ideas behind fear-setting come from Stoicism. If you’ll allow me to slightly oversimplify: the Stoics liked a logical approach to life.
They preferred to control their fears and desires, rather than being a prisoner to them.
And who wouldn’t?
So one day, Tim Ferriss was poking around in a book, and found this quote:
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” – Seneca (One of those Stoics)
That led him to visualize worst-case scenarios in detail, in order to control them.
But why does this make decision-making easier?
Let’s break it down.
Our Worst-Case Fears Aren’t That Bad (Or Likely)
Fear, in all its forms, makes us reluctant. We’re pretty risk-averse by nature. And we’re also pretty imaginative.
If you let them, your fears will tumble around inside, until they become way worse than truth.
The act of defining fears gets the worst-case scenario on the page. And guess what? It’s almost always not as bad as we thought, or as likely.
This alone is a big help, but it’s not all.
The Benefits Are Bigger Than Expected
On the flip side of over-estimating the downside, we’re pretty good at misjudging benefits. It’s easy to justify an action when you realize the benefits of even just attempting it.
This sets a low barrier for action. You gain confidence by seeing there’s a decent upside whatever happens.
Fear-setting also causes us to think about how likely good outcomes are. An action seems way more sensible if the benefits are more impactful and more likely than your fears.
Fear-Setting Counts the Cost of Doing Nothing
Tim Ferriss also talks a lot about the problems with maintaining the status quo. We like to keep things the same. And keeping things the same usually seems like the safest play.
Every choice comes with costs. In this case, if you choose to keep things just as they are, then you give up the benefits of everything else.
You have to count the costs of doing nothing.
How Fear-Setting Works: 13 Steps to Make Hard Decisions
Here’s what you need to give fear-setting on go:
3 pieces of paper. 1 pen. Some honesty.
Each page is for a different part of fear-setting:
- Defining fears
- Benefits of Attempting an Action
- Cost of doing nothing
But first, we need a decision to work with.
Step 1: Identify the Decision You Are Having Trouble With
We need a decision for the exercise. So, what would it take to get the life you want? What actions are you putting off or hesitating over? This is the kind of moving we’re dealing with here.
Tim Ferriss used the month-long trip to London as a test. He needed to get away but also wanted to see if he could get himself out of his company without things falling apart.
I’ve faced similar decisions like moving around the world and deciding to start my own business.
Step 2: Create 3 Columns on the First Page
OK, it’s time to grab that first page. We’re about to confront your fears.
I’ve got a template below that you can use or refer to.
Create 3 even columns. Label them:
Step 3: List Every Fear You Have About The Decision
In the ‘Define’ column, write down every fear you have. You’re creating the worst-case scenario, so don’t hold back.
It could be:
- Running out of money
- Losing touch with colleagues and friends
- Being embarrassed if it fails.
- Not being happy
- Making mistakes
Literally anything that has ever worried you about the action you’re contemplating needs to go on the sheet – big and small.
You have to be able to look at the list and feel like it’s complete.
Step 4: Write Down Things You Can Do to Prevent Each Fear
For every fear about the worst-case, come up with a strategy to avoid it. Write these in the second column labeled ‘Prevent’.
Instead of just letting a fear roam around your brain – look at how hard it is to address. We’re coming up with ways to reduce the likelihood that the fear comes true.
You’re afraid that a new job will mean losing touch with the people in your current job. How might you prevent that?
- Create a recurring reminder to call or message people
- Schedule regular coffee meetups to stay in touch
This shows you that the fears don’t have to happen just because you’re worried about them.
So do this for all of the fears, giving as many prevention ideas as you can.
Step 5: Write Down Ways To Repair Damage if the Fear Comes True
In the ‘Repair’ column come up with ideas to undo the damage if the bad outcome does happen.
Trying out a new business idea might mean losing your income and savings. Think about what you would do if that happened.
Could you get a job similar to the one you have now? Do you have assets you could sell? Would your skills and experience allow you to get a job in a different industry?
In a worst-case scenario, is there any way you could rebuild income and savings?
This does a couple of things:
It reduces the power of the fears. That’s because it forces you to think about what you would do in the absolute worst-case. And you’ll probably realize that isn’t even as bad as you thought.
It also helps decide just how relevant the fear is. We get that by asking how probable the outcomes are.
Step 6: Figure Out How Likely Each Worst-Case Scenario Is
You’ve defined fears and thought about ways to prevent and remedy them. Next is a really important step – looking at how likely the worst-case situation is.
Try stepping aside from the fear completely – be objective. Is this thing you’re worried about actually likely?
How often does it happen to people who try the same?
Give every fear a score from 1-10, where 1 is no chance and 10 is completely certain.
Once we know how likely each fear is, we can combine that with how much of an impact it would have if it happened.
Step 7: Figure Out the Impact of Each Fear in the First Column (1-10 scale)
Go through every fear and work out how bad the impact would be if it came true – using a 1-10 scale.
So a ‘1’ might be not at all important and have no real impact. A ‘10’ would be something that permanently made your life worse.
The mid-range is set-backs and road bumps of varying severity.
Worrying about losing touch with friends could be a 4 or 5 – it’s bad, but you can undo it. I feel pretty confident saying losing a limb is a 9 or 10.
Make sure you write the impact ratings next to the fears.
Step 8: Write Every Possible Benefit of An Attempt or Partial Success
Grab a new page, and get ready for a new perspective. We’re looking at benefits now.
Create a list of everything you would get out of even attempting the action. We’re taking a conservative approach here, by not presuming great success.
If you can show yourself the benefits of giving it a go – a rational plan can be made.
You’re listing everything you can think of here: emotional, financial, skills, experience, happiness, and relationships – no limits.
So, the benefits of taking a new job – even if it doesn’t work out – might include:
- Meeting new people
- Learning new skills
- Figuring out what kind of work you don’t want to do
- Spending more time with family, even just in the short term
- Realizing what things you are relieved to have left behind in your old job
- Having more creative ideas due to being in a new environment
- Getting to try out different coffee shops near the new workplace
- Never having to wonder if it would have worked out
- Realizing that changing jobs isn’t a big deal in the future
- More opportunities to travel
- More time to work on side projects
Can you see how some of these are pretty intangible? I created a pretty long list for a reason.
When you’re in a dark room afraid of changing jobs, ‘trying out different coffee shops’ isn’t going to chase the fear right away.
But these are the kinds of things that can impact your life. And that’s the mindset shift we’re after.
They don’t have to be huge, life-altering improvements to make a difference.
And benefiting from a decision doesn’t only happen when it works out – these all can come from trying something out.
Step 9: Figure Out How Likely Each Benefit Is (1-10 scale)
Go through and rate each benefit based on how likely they are to happen. Use a 1-10 rating scale again. Remember, the benefits should come from partial success or attempting the action.
Step 10: Figure Out the Impact of Each Benefit (1-10 scale)
Give another 1-10 score for how much positive impact each benefit would have.
These probability and impact scores give you some math to work with. They’re clear, and staring right back at you on the page. I imagine the rational Stoics would approve.
You can eventually compare these against the scores of the fears.
But first, there’s one more important factor you can’t overlook: the cost of doing nothing.
Step 11: Create 3 New Columns and label them ‘6 months’, ‘1 year’, and ‘3 years’.
We’re going to fill these with the costs of maintaining the status quo, rather than taking action.
Step 12: Write Down the Costs of Doing Nothing
Now give some value to everything you’ll lose by not taking the action. Do it for each column – 6 months, 1 year, and 3 years.
Spend some time figuring what ‘cost’ means in each case – flesh everything out with plenty of detail.
We have an (unfortunate) tendency to think that keeping things the same is safe. Maintaining the status quo seems the best way to avoid risk – even if you miss some potential benefits.
Sorry… but this is wrong.
How much money would you make if you just make a decision and take action? How much happier would you be if your plan to work remotely went well?
How much time would you lose if you put this next thing off for 3 more years?
These are all costs you might otherwise ignore.
It’s going to be frightening – so consider yourself warned. But if you’re going to tuck yourself away out of fear, you need to know what that costs.
Step 13: Review All 3 Pages Together
Now that you’ve put it all on paper, let’s check out where things stand.
How likely are the worst-case fears that are holding you back? How easy is it to undo any damage if they did come true?
Are the benefits more likely?
There’s really no point letting a low-probability bad outcome stop a high-probability benefit.
And even if the bad outcomes are likely, what does it cost to do nothing?
Running through this should clarify decision making, at the very least. I think it’ll probably help you change your life.
And I’ve got some tips to make that easier.
Tips for Fear-Setting
Repeat the Exercise Monthly
In the beginning, I recommend you continue to do this often. I suggest monthly, but quarterly or yearly are options as well. It just depends on what time-scale your life planning happens on.
As you get in the habit of rationalizing fear and making better decisions, I expect you can do it less often.
But, at first, you’ll be surprised how easily fears creep back in to hold us back. There are no limits or rules. So if going through the steps every week gives you the boost to put bold actions in place, then do it.
Use Fear-Setting for Decisions You’ve Already Made
There’s a kind of buyer’s remorse for big decisions. Even after you’ve leaped bravely, fears don’t run away and play happily in the distance.
They keep you guessing. And is that in any way helpful? Nope.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you used fear-setting to help you take action in the first place. It’s a great way to evaluate decisions already made.
Do this to show yourself why you made the right call. Remind yourself that everything is manageable, no matter what happens.
Doing this is good practice as well. If you’re already seeing some benefits from something, it’s easy to see why the exercise works.
Fear-Setting Mistake to Avoid: Leaving Out Some Fears
Fear-setting doesn’t work if you’re not honest.
Look back at the steps. If you’re missing fears from the first page, you’re not getting a good picture of the equation.
And the fears don’t go away because you didn’t write them down.
Quite the opposite actually – they still control you. It just undermines the entire exercise.
If you look at your list and it doesn’t feel complete (i.e. a big weight is still on your shoulders), keep going. Sit on it for a while and think. Try out different descriptions.
Getting these things out of your brain and onto the page is the whole point – so don’t skip any.
Last Bit of Advice on Fear-Setting
You’ve got all of the tools now. I just want to make a couple of key points extra clear before you go.
Fear-setting is for any decision that’s causing you stress. It’s a way to stop fears from preventing success and spiraling out of control. And that’s exactly what you can use it for – taking control of the fears.
If you run through the whole exercise and decide that a huge life decision is in fact a bad idea, then great. We’re always trying to make smarter decisions.
As long as you set the fears aside.
The bad outcomes have to outweigh the benefits and costs of doing nothing.
There’s a whole world and many more wonderful years out there for you. That’s more than a fair reward for mastering fear-setting.
- Fear-setting is a decision-making tool for important, high-stakes situations
- The exercise involves 3 stages:
- Defining fears
- Predicting the benefits of attempting an action
- Calculating the costs of doing nothing
- By confronting worst-case scenarios, they are revealed to be better than expected. Also, it focuses on the benefits of action.
- Fear-setting was developed by Tim Ferriss. It applies principles of stoicism to making life and business decisions. The focus is on controlling fear by visualizing and planning for it.
- There are 13 steps for effective fear-setting (Use 3 pieces of paper):
- Identify the decision you are having trouble with
- Create 3 columns on 1 page, labeled:
- List every fear you have about the decision (under ‘Define’)
- Write down things you can do to prevent each fear (under ‘Prevent’)
- Write down ways to repair the damage if the fear comes true (under ‘Repair’)
- Figure out how likely each worst-case scenario is (1-10 scale)
- Figure out the impact of each fear in the first column (1-10 scale)
- On a new page: Write every possible benefit of an attempt or partial success
- Figure out how likely each benefit is (1-10 scale)
- Figure out how much impact each benefit would have (1-10 scale)
- On the last page: create 3 new columns and label them:
- 6 months
- 1 year
- 3 years
- For each time-frame, write the costs of doing nothing and maintaining the status quo (physical, financial, emotional)
- Review all pages together. Compare the probability and impact of bad outcomes against benefits. Include the cost of doing nothing
- The exercise should be repeated regularly, at least once a year
- Fear-setting requires complete honesty and practice. You can use it for decisions you’ve already made. This is a good way to try it out and remind yourself why you made the decision in the first place.
Use this template, or create one similar to go through the fear-setting steps.
Page 1: Define Fears
Page 2: Benefits of Attempt or Partial Success
Page 3: Costs of Inaction
What are the costs of maintaining the status quo (physical, emotional, financial, etc)?