Make Decisions while Overcoming Fear and Anxiety

I’m a big fan of goal setting. In fact, I wanted to do a post right away on goal setting, but thought it was too obvious, too instructive, too cliché. (Take your pick.) Then I came across Tim Ferris’s TedTalk on “Fear-Setting.”

Fear is what keeps us from taking actions that we believe are potentially risky. It prevents us from doing something we may want. But this “it,” this “fear,” is only ourselves. It’s the “rational” part of our brain saying, “No something bad could happen if you do this so don’t do it and stick to what you know and absolute assurances only.” What kind of life is that?

Sometimes this fear isn’t even a risky consequence or something bad happening, but it’s the idea of failing or not accomplishing the goal originally set. We let the potential of failure hold us back. (Insert metaphorical sports quote.)

If you’re like me, the anxiety of making a decision is paralyzing, with inaction ultimately making the decision for me.

Ferris’s notion of fear-setting turns the tables on all of this. His idea aims to reduce the anxiety we feel when making decisions; reveal exactly how “risky” the consequences are; and offer solutions for correcting any negative outcomes. These three steps are: Define, Prevent, and Repair.

How does it work?

If you have a difficult decision to make, then practice fear-setting by:

  1. Defining the worst possible outcomes as a result of your decision.
  2. Figure out how you can prevent this outcome from happening.
  3. Determine how you could repair any damage done if your worst possible outcome turns out to be your reality.

For instance, a few months back I left my first full-time job. Several people persuaded me not to, as it “wouldn’t look good” if I left a job before a certain length of time. But that wasn’t a concern of mine. Still, it took me a while to gain the courage and put aside my fears before I gave my notice.

Originally, I tried goal setting in the most unproductive manner. I gave myself a minimum number of jobs to apply to weekly. I set a personal end date, which I told no one about. The result? I applied to a lot of jobs, which made me a little lazy with personalizing cover letters and resumes. A lot of jobs responded, which meant a lot of phone interviews and multi-step interviews that went nowhere. Applying to a lot of jobs gave me hope to meet my preset end date. Spoiler: I never hit it. I changed my “end date” at least four times. Each time that predetermined date came, I had no new job offer to take, and was right where I started.

Eventually, I made myself sit down and focus. What was the worst that would happen if I left this job? Well, I had no job lined up in my field meaning there would be a gap on my resume between employers. Oh and I could quickly run out of money without a stable income.

Is this preventable? Yes. Find a job in my field and problem solved.

But what if I don’t find a job in my field?

Obviously I had been trying that for months with little result. I knew there had to be other options. And there were, I just needed some guidance.

Alex Hillman, one of the founders of the coworking space IndyHall, shared his insight and discussed my options with me early on in this process. He reminded me, “You could always go get a job at Big Lots or stock shelves at the grocery store.” It’s still a job, and it still pays the bills. I found it odd I needed to be reminded of this, as at the time I was waitressing part-time and was assured I could become full-time.

Another part of my conversation with Alex made me consider what I want to give back to the world and how I can do that. You can give back in many ways: volunteer, donate money/items, plant trees, live and breathe an ecofriendly lifestyle, etc. But there are ways to give back daily through your job. Teachers do it, firefighters do it, sanitation workers do it. Yeah it’s a job, but those people are still positively contributing and giving back to a community. I questioned if the work I was doing was giving back. At the time, I didn’t think the job I had was. It was difficult for me to see positive value and societal contribution.

Mind you, at the same time, one of my best friends, Holly, experienced similar dissatisfaction and decided to go back to school for a teaching degree and began substituting in the Philadelphia Public School District. I saw her eagerness to make a difference and how excited she was to take these steps toward her future that would ultimately impact the future of others.

I didn’t suddenly think my calling was to be a teacher. But, Holly’s experience made me think about where I was and how so far off I felt from contributing to my community.

Maybe, like Holly, if I can’t find a job doing exactly what I thought I wanted, then I might not be in the right field, or maybe I have other skills yet to develop.

What if my worst fears (not having a job/running out of money/not finding a new job) came true, how can I remedy that? Well, I was already living in my grandparents’ basement, I could sell my car, stop spending money, defer my student loans, etc.

I knew having a waitressing job to fall back on was key in making this difficult to decision. But even if I hadn’t had that, I would have followed Alex’s advice and found a job, any job, to get by.

While leaving a job can have serious financial consequences, and is a lot easier for a 20-something year-old with minimal responsibilities, it’s still the same mental battle. I’m not one who handles change well, even if it’s something I want—like moving.

When I made the decision to move, I heard a lot of the same responses: What if you don’t like it? What if it’s not how you thought it would be? What if your relationship falls apart? What if you miss your family?

Thank you peanut gallery, because these are not thoughts I had myself. But I managed to solve these problems almost instantaneously (which was surprising for my anxiety-induced mind). My solution: come home. Last time I checked, airplanes fly east and west—incredible! Seriously though, coming home is a practical solution to these fears and I’ve had that thought all along.

However, that doesn’t exactly embody the idea of fear-setting, and it feels more like an exit strategy. I can’t prevent missing my family or the fact that certain friendships may fade because of this. But I can do my best to call and text everyone. I already expect to be Skyped in immediately after the birth of my cousin’s second child. And I’m looking forward to all the pictures, videos, and drunk calls the night of my sister’s 21st birthday.

Okay all of that might actually make me miss them more. Thankfully, before I left I was given cards and letters from most of my family. I have them sitting on a shelf waiting for me to read their well wishes on an undetermined sad day. I’m also scheduling visits home around the most important events for my friends and family (I know, births and 21st birthdays are HUGE, but that didn’t work out too well this time), like weddings, weddings, and more weddings. So basically if you want to see me, just get married.

If this all becomes too much and I can’t make it work, then the consequences are a little different. I can go home, mend fences, remind my friends why they originally wanted to hang out with me, and tell my family I love them with some nice baked goods. There would be some “I told you so”s that I would have to deal with. But I would stand by my original decision. Nothing risked is nothing gained, and this is a risk I need to take for myself and my relationship.

I still have many fears about moving and being far from my family—after all it’s only been a few weeks. But Ferris’s fear-setting allows me to think about these fears in a more practical way than I would have before. It worked for me with the decision to leave my job, and I’m counting on it working again.


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