Fear-Setting: How to Define Your Fears (+Template)

Doing what you truly want is frightening. Fear-setting helps you overcome this.

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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.

  • Predicting the benefits of attempting an action
  • Calculating the costs of doing nothing

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.

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.

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.

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.

How Fear-Setting Works: 13 Steps to Make Hard Decisions

Here’s what you need to give fear-setting on go:

  • Benefits of Attempting an Action
  • Cost of doing nothing

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.

Step 2: Create 3 Columns on the First Page

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  • Prevent
  • Repair

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.

  • Losing touch with colleagues and friends
  • Being embarrassed if it fails.
  • Not being happy
  • Making mistakes

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’.

  • Schedule regular coffee meetups to stay in touch

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.

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.

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.

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.

  • 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

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.

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.

Step 13: Review All 3 Pages Together

Now that you’ve put it all on paper, let’s check out where things stand.

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.

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.

Fear-Setting Mistake to Avoid: Leaving Out Some Fears

Fear-setting doesn’t work if you’re not honest.

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.

Field Notes:

  • Fear-setting is a decision-making tool for important, high-stakes situations
  • The exercise involves 3 stages:
  1. Predicting the benefits of attempting an action
  2. Calculating the costs of doing nothing
  • 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):
  1. Create 3 columns on 1 page, labeled:
  • Prevent
  • Repair
  • 1 year
  • 3 years
  • 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

Fear-Setting Template

Use this template, or create one similar to go through the fear-setting steps.

Page 1: Define Fears

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Page 2: Benefits of Attempt or Partial Success

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Page 3: Costs of Inaction

What are the costs of maintaining the status quo (physical, emotional, financial, etc)?

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Written by

Productivity and personal development. Sign up to my 5-Bullet Monday Newsletter: http://DanSilvestre.com

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