Goal Setting

Anti-goal setting: Work out what you don’t want to find what you do

‘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; identify what you need to avoid to achieve your goal.

‘Anti-goal setting’ is a concept popularised in this article 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. They wanted to restructure their days to work better for them. Identifying their worst possible day at work, they worked backwards to find the opposite, perfect day and their anti-goals.

For example, their worst scenario involves days full of long meetings and packed calendars. They decided never to schedule in-person meetings that could be done virtually and avoid more than two hours of scheduled time each day.

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.

Instead of saying, ‘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 shifts the mind from tackling a broad problem to zooming in on the specific situations you need to address.

Anti-goals help you tap into the fear of what you don’t want to happen. They connect the future vision of who you want to be with the actions you need to take now. If in a year you’d be happy to be in the same situation, there’s no problem. If you want to be in a better situation by next year, do something different now!

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 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 if the long term focus is on the future.