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Anti-goal setting; work out what you don't want to find what you do

Hand holding a crystal ball which inverts the landscape behind it

‘What do you want to eat?’ is a tough question. I can tell you what I don’t fancy far more often than I can say exactly what I do want. Anti-goal setting is based on a similar idea; rather than knowing the perfect outcome, identify what you need to avoid in order to achieve the goal.

‘Anti-goal setting’ is a concept popularised in an article written by Andrew Wilkinson. He talks about using inversion as a way of resolving problems by reversing them. In simple terms, identify what you don’t want and then take action to avoid that potential.

Wilkinson and his business partner Chris Sparling felt their work lives were out of balance so wanted to restructure their days to work better for them. They identified what their worst possible day at work would look like then worked backwards to find the opposite, perfect day and their anti-goals.

Anti-goals are framed negatively, rather than positively. For example, their worst day involved days full of long meetings and packed calendars. So, they decided never to schedule in-person meetings that could be done by email or phone (or not at all) and avoid more than 2 hours of scheduled time each day.

List out what you don’t want to happen, or think about the person you don’t want to be a year from now. As with regular goals, envisioning yourself in the future is a key part of the process. But instead of imagining yourself achieving the goal, see yourself not achieving it and think about how you’d feel. Then identify what you need to do to not end up in that place and start taking action.

If you want to help yourself, instead of thinking, ‘what can I do to make this situation better?’ ask ‘what do I do that causes me the most difficulty and how do I avoid that?’ This helps focus the mind from trying to work on a very broad problem which could have lots of potential solutions, to zooming in on the specific situations you want to avoid and working out how to do that.

As I've discussed in other articles, pain and pleasure are key motivators for action. Anti-goals can be more motivating because they help you tap into the fear of what you don’t want to happen. They allow you to connect the future vision of who you want to be with the actions you need to take now. If you want to look back in a year and still be in the same situation then carry on exactly as you are but if you want to be in a better situation next year, you’d better get going!

They can also help combat any reluctance you might feel about taking action. Regular goals can feel difficult because they’re often things you know you should be doing. An anti-goal helps you find a new source of motivation to avoid the situations you don’t want to find yourself in.

Initially, I wasn’t completely sold on this idea. I’ve always understood that you should focus in the direction of what you want to achieve and where you want to go, rather than dwelling on what could go wrong or worst case scenarios. But I think not dwelling on the risk is the key difference. You can look back in order to take a step forward as long as the long term focus is on the future.

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