How Fear Setting can make you happier: Lessons from Seneca, Tim Ferriss and Jim Collins


We’re all familiar with making to-do lists to manage our personal and professional lives.

I can almost guarantee that if you’re reading this post there is one list that you don’t currently have, and that’s a list of your fears.

Fear + Negative Thoughts

How many times has the fear of what might happen prevented you from taking action on something you wanted to do?

Our initial reaction when we’re faced with fear is to avoid it.

Our fears trigger negative thinking, which can lead to low mood, poor self-esteem, and anxiety.

To make things worse, a bias towards negative thinking increases the likelihood that you’ll spend time thinking about past mistakes or dwelling on things that didn’t go well.

This Negativity Bias can affect your judgment and decisions will seem harder and more complex than they really are, making it harder to handle difficult situations.

Fortunately, there is a simple mental tool that we can use to manage our fears and the effects of negative thinking, and that’s where Fear Setting comes in.

Premeditation Malorum

Fear Setting is an exercise that author, podcaster and human guinea pig Tim Ferriss developed about 5 years ago.

The premise of Fear Setting is rooted in Stoicism, a 2000-year-old philosophy, which encourages the exercise of premeditatio malorum - the premeditation of the evils and troubles that might lie ahead.

What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events…"
- Seneca

Essentially, the Stoics remind us that quite often things won't work out and that we are certain to suffer loss at some stage in life.

However, we can overcome the impact of these events by preparing ourselves for their eventuality through thought experiments and visualization.  

Premeditatio malorum requires imagining things that can go wrong or be taken away from us and helps us prepare for life’s inevitable setbacks.

Seneca one of the world's pre-eminent Stoic philosophers would say, “the unexpected blows of fortune fall heaviest and most painfully, which is why the wise man thinks about them in advance.”

In doing this, you're solving problems in advance so that if (or when) they do arise, you already have solutions at hand and you're able to approach the problem in a calmer and more effective manner.

Fear Setting  

So what exactly is Fear Setting?

Ferriss describes it as "(It’s) a way to visualize all the bad things that could happen to you, so you become less afraid of taking action.”

Fear Setting is an exercise that helps you make hard decisions when fear is holding you back and distorting your thinking.

It does this by putting your fears under the microscope, assessing the impact of the worst-case scenario, and considering the consequences of taking action or not taking action.

All you need to complete the exercise is:

  • 3 pieces of paper
  • A pen; and
  • Up to an hour of uninterrupted time

Page 1

The first page of the exercise is all about getting up close and personal with your fears. Divide the page into 3 columns, each headed “Define” “Prevent” and “Repair”.

  • In the Define column, list everything you fear about the idea of taking action - the worst-case scenario or the things preventing you from taking action.
  • In the Prevent column, list ways you can reduce the likelihood of the worst-case scenario happening.
  • In the Repair column, list ways you can repair the damage if the worst-case scenario came true.
  • Finish the page by assessing the impact of the worst-case scenario on a scale of 1 (minimal impact) to 10 (life-changing impact).

Page 2

On the second page, consider what might go right if you take action. List the positive benefits of an attempt or partial success at taking action.

Then assess the potential positive benefits of these successes on a scale of 1 (minimal impact) to 10 (life-changing impact).

Page 3

Divide the third page into 3 columns, headed 6 months, 1 year, and 3 years and write down the cost of inaction, of maintaining the status quo over the course of these timeframes.

To make it even easier for you to complete the exercise, I’ve created a Free Fear Setting worksheet which you can use right after you’ve downloaded here.

When to use Fear Setting

Ferriss himself attributes Fear Setting to producing some of his biggest personal and business successes, as well as helping to avoid catastrophic mistakes.

To put this into context, you can use Fear Setting when you’re trying to make a decision about what to do next in your professional life - for example, quitting your job to start a new business - or personal life - like making the decision to move from London to Brighton (that’s me!)

You can also use it when you’ve made a decision but you’re afraid of the upcoming changes in your life. Fear Setting can help you come to terms with and accept those changes.

By completing the Fear Setting exercise you gain greater clarity about the realities of taking action or maintaining the status quo.

Facing your Fears (or not!)

Last summer I faced quite a few challenges after my business failed. It had quite an impact on me and the fear of failing again stopped me from doing very much for quite some time.

For about 6 months after I learned about Fear Setting, I had an ongoing reminder on my phone about completing the exercise.

I was avoiding facing my fears and dealing with the consequences - the exact thing that the exercise requires you to do.

One tool that helped me complete the exercise by taking action was the 2-minute rule, which helped me generate momentum to get shit done. It’s a simple tool that you can start using straight away to take action and achieve results.

For a deeper dive on the 2-minute rule and how you can use it to start taking action on the things that you’ve been avoiding, check out this post here.

“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.”
— Benjamin Disraeli, former British Prime Minister

Just do it.

I’m so glad I did finally complete the Fear Setting exercise because it helped me gain clarity on the realities of taking action instead of maintaining what was my status quo.