How to Conquer Your Fears and Take Action (Tim Ferriss’ Fear-Setting Exercise)

In 2004, Tim Ferriss was making $70,000/month from his first business. On paper, BrainQUICKEN was killing it.

But in reality, the business was killing him.

Although Ferriss built BrainQUICKEN from the ground up, some critical flaws in the business made him a bottleneck for many workflows. To keep pace with the demands of his business, Ferriss was self-medicating: using stimulants to get going, and depressants to wind down for sleep.

While working non-stop 14-plus hour days, it became clear he had pushed himself far past his limits.

“It was a disaster,” Ferriss explained in his recent talk at TED2017 in Vancouver, Canada, “I felt completely trapped.”

Tim Ferriss on stage at TED2017

It was no longer a matter of “if” he needed to make a change, but “how”?

After much deliberation, Ferriss devised a plan: A month-long trip to London, where he could stay with a friend and get a change of scenery. While away, he’d either be able to remove himself from the business, or he’d shut the whole thing down.

But when the business relied so heavily on his time and energy each day, how would this change be possible? How could he afford to even take a trip like this?

Fear of what might go wrong locked Ferriss in a state of paralysis, as BrainQUICKEN continued to drive him into the ground.

Fortunately, with the help of some stoic philosophy and a reflective exercise he coined “Fear-Setting”, Ferriss was able to overcome his decision paralysis and take the trip.

This turned out to be a good move, as he was able to redesign the business to minimize his involvement, and extend this “1-month trip” into a year-and-a-half jaunt around the world, forming the basis for his bestselling book The 4-Hour Workweek.

Fear Warps Your Thinking and Inhibits Action

“Where fear is, happiness is not.”
How many times has the fear of what might happen prevented you from taking action on something you wanted to do?

Maybe you wanted to ask for a raise, ask someone out, or quit your job to start a company…

In these situations, the mind goes into self-protection mode and turns into an excuse-generating machine:

  • “I might get rejected.”
  • “I might fall behind and not be able to catch up.”
  • “It probably wouldn’t be that great. I should just keep doing what I’m doing.”

But if these excuses always get the best of you, inaction will lead you straight to regret.

I’ve faced this fear-based paralysis many times in life. But in recent years, I’ve built the mental tools to continue taking action, even when fears come up.

The core practice you can use to do this is examining your fears more closely.

Fear is uncomfortable, so the initial reaction is to avoid it. But by looking at it more closely, you gain clearer understanding of your thoughts.

Fear tends to warp your thinking, causing you to…

  • Exaggerate the potential negative consequences of taking action.
  • Understate the potential positive results of taking action.
  • Ignore the costs to inaction.

Fortunately, when you stay aware of the fact that fear distorts your thinking, it gives you the opportunity to act with intention.

One way to do this is with Ferris’ Fear-Setting exercise.

Use “Fear-Setting” to Clarify Your Thinking and Take Action in the Face of Fear

Fear-Setting is a powerful exercise that I’ve used multiple times, and have shared with close friends.

It’s part of what gave me the confidence to leave my previous job and devote myself to a new life path with Mindful Ambition.

Below is everything you need to get started with Fear-Setting.

What is Fear-Setting?

A structured reflection exercise used to help you see decisions more clearly when fear is holding you back and distorting your thinking.

It was inspired by the stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, who famously said “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

When Should I use Fear-Setting?

Fear-Setting is helpful in a number of settings, including:

  • When making decisions about what to do next…In both business and personal life, fear-setting helps you see the reality of the situation more clearly to make the best decision. (e.g. You’re thinking about taking a leap like quitting your job, ending a relationship, or moving to a new place.)
  • When you already know what you’re going to do but it’s stressing you out…Fear-setting helps you create a sense of comfort and confidence with impending changes. (e.g. You already know you’re going to graduate school in a few months, but have fears and anxieties about how it will go.)

What do I Need to get Started?

  • 3 pages of paper
  • A good pen to write with
  • 30-60 minutes of un-rushed time

(To make things easier for you, I put this exercise in a downloadable PDF worksheet. Enter your email below to access it.)

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How do I do the Exercise?

Fear-Setting has three pages, each with a different purpose:

  1. Put your fears under a microscope
  2. Consider the potential benefits of taking action
  3. Consider the consequences of inaction

Got your paper, pen, and some time? Let’s go!

Page 1: Put Your Fears Under a Microscope

“…remember, fear doesn’t exist anywhere except in the mind.”
~Dale Carnegie

The first page of fear setting is about getting up close and personal with your fears. Instead of shying away from thinking about it, you dive in head-first to understand them more clearly.

Step 1: On page one, make three columns and label them “Define”, “Prevent”, and “Repair”.

Step 2: In column one, define everything you fear about the idea of taking action.

List out your most nightmarish scenarios, your doubts, and your “what-if”s. Write it all down, and don’t hold back.

  • What’s the worst case scenario?
  • What might go wrong?

Step 3: In column two, list ways you could reduce the likelihood of each of the worst-case scenarios from happening.

What actions could you take to make those scenarios less likely to come to fruition?(Consider both big actions and small actions.)

Step 4: In column three, list ways you could repair the damage, if this situation were to come true.

What actions could you take to repair the damage, or get yourself back on track?

Step 5: Assess the impact of these worst-case scenarios on a scale of 1-10.

1 = minimal impact, and 10 = permanently life-altering in a significant way.

Here’s an example of what that might start to look like if you were thinking about quitting your job to be an entrepreneur.

Although there’s only a couple fears defined here, don’t hold back when you do your Fear-Setting exercise. Leave no fear unexamined!

Page 2: Consider the Potential Benefits of Taking Action

On page two, give yourself space to be more open, and consider what might go right if you take action.

Step 6: Write down the positive benefits of even an attempt, or partial success at taking action.

Step 7: Assess the potential potential positive benefit of these successes on a 1-10 scale.

1 = minimal impact, 10 = a very significant impact.

Here’s another example of page 2 for a prospective entrepreneur.

Notice how even small “wins” on this path could be significantly impactful.

Page 3: Consider the Consequences of Inaction

Page three is equally important to the others, but often forgotten in decision-making: the costs of inaction.

Step 8: Make three columns on the page, and label them 6 months, 1 year, and 3 years.

Projecting out past 3 years feels too intangible, so keep it in this range.

Step 9: Write down the potential costs of maintaining the status quo.

  • What are the costs of inaction?

Consider all consequences, including emotional, financial, and physical at each time horizon. Get detailed!

Find Clarity, Conquer Fear, and Take Action

After completing the Fear-Setting exercise, you should have greater clarity about the realities of taking action.

In the past, I’ve found that fear-setting helps me understand:

  • The “worst-case scenarios” of taking action actually aren’t that bad.
  • The benefits of an attempt, or partial success are usually better than first thought.
  • Although maintaining the status-quo can be comfortable, it’s overrated.

With all of that in mind, it makes taking action easier and more comfortable. 🙂

You also may find that your fears about taking action are completely warranted! But you shouldn’t conclude that unless you’ve taken the time to investigate the fears first.

So, what actions have you been putting off because you’re worried about what might happen?

Take time this week to examine your fears more closely.

Then, take action to continue building your best life! While Fear-Setting is helpful to take that first step, it’s consistent action, taken over time that help you build lasting confidence.

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
~Dale Carnegie

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  • If you’re looking for more from Tim Ferriss check out his books, latest TED talk on Stoicism and Fear-Setting, and podcast (where I first learned about Fear-Setting.)
  • If you want to learn more about stoicism, Daily Stoic is good for an introduction.

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