What Is Fear Setting & How to Use It?

Do you feel stuck and unable to reach your goals? Are you being held back by all of the what-ifs and worst-case scenarios floating around in your head?

Instead of using these fears as obstacles, what if there was a way to use them as motivators and tools to help you thrive even in stressful environments?


Fear setting isn't new, but it was more recently popularized by Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Work Week. Ferris credits fear setting with helping him leave a successful career in consulting to pursue his writing full-time.

Fear setting has its roots in Stoicism, a school of thought that teaches the development of self-control, fortitude, and resilience. The goal is to be in control of your emotions and not be swayed or controlled by them.

Ancient Stoics like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius argued that fear is irrational as it makes no sense to fear what can't be controlled or to fear what can be controlled. It's either out of our control, or in our control, so there is no cause for worry, the Stoics reason. They used a practice known as “Premaditatio Malorum,” which means “premeditating evil”.

For Tim Ferris, fear setting helps to take the fear out of decision-making by breaking it down into manageable steps and putting the focus on taking action.

Rather than be afraid, fear setting helps focus on controlling the source of fear and addressing it so it's no longer an obstacle.

“Defining Fears, Not Goals”

Fear setting is like setting goals. However, this is meant to identify and remove any obstacles to achieving your goals. Ferris even goes as far as to call it an operating system that we can use to make better decisions in high-stress situations.

It might sound counterintuitive at first to focus more on the fears and less on the goals, but Ferriss argues that it's the naming of the fears that allows us to conquer them.

Fear setting dives into these fears head-on and forces you to face, in detail, what that fear would be like if it came true. Through the process of visualizing these fears come to life, the goal is to become more confident in yourself and your ability to make the right decisions as they arise.

If visualizing your worst-case scenarios sounds intimidating, it might just mean you're the perfect candidate for fear setting.

With perfect clarity on all of the possible outcomes (good and bad), the idea is that you'll finally overcome the paralysis that was once holding you back.

When To Use Fear Setting

Fear setting can be helpful to anyone at any point in their life, but it can make the most impact in certain scenarios when fear is in the way.

One setting where fear setting may be valuable is when you're trying to decide what to do next in your life. Perhaps you're at a crossroads and faced with a big decision to make – whether to move or stay, switch jobs or take a promotion, leave your relationship or try to make it work – and you need help to see the reality of your circumstances as they are.

Fear setting in this scenario can help you see the entire situation for what it is and make the best decision with that information rather than allow worst-case scenario thinking to impact you negatively.

Another setting where the fear-setting exercise may be particularly helpful is when you know what decision you're going to make or what action you're going to take, but the thought of it is stressing you out and causing problems. Some examples of this scenario could be an upcoming birth, impending graduation, or a contract job ending.

In this case, fear setting can help you make peace with what is about to happen or change and take it on with a positive attitude.

Putting Fear Setting to Action

Fear setting is most powerful when done correctly. While spending a little time thinking about worst-case scenarios may be helpful in some ways, it's not going to produce the same peaceful results as formal fear setting. It may end up creating the opposite intended effect and cause more undue stress about a decision or situation.

To get started with your very own fear-setting practice, ensure you have everything you need, including the space and time to do it right.

To begin, you'll need:

  • 3 pages of blank paper, lined or unlined
  • A good pen or pencil to write with
  • At least 30 minutes of free time, but 60 minutes is ideal to avoid rushing

Ready to go? Follow along for basic instructions on fear setting and how to eliminate your fears to accomplish your greatest desires.

Basic Steps

On page one, you'll focus on your fears in great detail. On page two, you'll consider what benefits you could enjoy by taking action. And on page three, you'll consider what consequences you would face due to inaction.

Let's get started with page one.

Zooming In on Fears

On the first page, create three columns that you will use to list out your fears in detail. The first column should be titled Define, the second should be titled Prevent, and the third should be titled Repair.


In the first column, define your fear. What would happen if your fear came true? Try to be as specific and realistic as possible.

In the second column, define ways to prevent this fear from happening with both small and big actions.

In the third column, write down ways you could respond to repair the damage even if the worst-case scenario happened. How could you get back on the right track after being derailed?

Benefits of Action

On the second page, brainstorm what benefits you could enjoy by taking action despite your fear. What good could come from it?

Start by brainstorming a list of benefits on the page. Then, rate each benefit on a scale of 1-10 for how impactful each attempt to take action might be. Something rated a 1 would have a minimal potential impact, while a 10 would have a notable impact.

Note that even small wins, when added up, can make a big difference.

Costs of Inaction

On the third and final page, return to your fear scenarios from page one and brainstorm what could happen if you don't take action. What are the consequences of inaction? It's a key step often missed in the decision-making process, but it's just as important as parts one and two.

On the page, make three columns again as you did with page one. Label the first column “Six Months,” the second column “One Year,” and the third column “Three Years.”

These periods will help you zoom out your thinking and take a bigger-picture approach without getting so far ahead that it feels intangible.

Ask yourself: if you maintained things exactly as they are, what would the emotional, physical, and financial costs be six months from now, a year from now, and three years from now? Get detailed.


After going through the fear-setting process, you might come to the following conclusions:

You're afraid of quitting your job because you don't know what to do next. The potential worst-case scenario, or fear, that you define in the first column on page one is that you can't find another job and end up homeless. You rate this fear as a 5 in terms of impact.

In the “prevent” column of the first page, next to your fear, you write that you could start by looking for a new job while you're still employed. In the “repair” column, you note that you have savings that would last for six months if needed. You rate these pretty high for impact, at a 6 and an 8, respectively.

On the second page, where you explore benefits, you rate the potential benefit of finding a new job that you love as an 8. On the “costs” page, you rate the emotional cost of staying in a job you hate as a 6 six months from now, an 8 a year from now, and 10 three years from now.

Based on this fear-setting exercise, it's clear that the benefits of taking action (finding a new job) outweigh the costs of inaction (staying in a job you hate).

Of course, your fear-setting process will be unique to you and your specific fears. But the goal is always the same: to help you make better decisions by taking a proactive, rather than reactive, approach.

Wrapping Up

Fear setting might seem counterintuitive at first, but it's a simple yet effective tool that can help you make better decisions, ignore nagging fears, achieve your goals, and live a happier, more fulfilled life today and years down the road.

The next time you face a difficult decision, take some time to go through the fear-setting process. It just might help you overcome your fear and take action.


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