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Anti-goals: Should you have them?

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

I was coaching one of my clients a few weeks ago and he mentioned the term anti-goals and desiring to have some. It piqued my interest right away as it's not a typical term. I recall reading about anti-goals years ago and have used the idea of them in my practice at times.

Anti-goals are based on the premise of inversion. In the case of goals, the idea is that problems are often best solved when they are reversed. This is what Andrew Wilkinson, author of the blog post The Power of Anti-Goals, found out when he imagined his worst possible day and thought of ways to avoid it.

Him, and his partner, listed all the things that would be the worst possible day for them like "a packed calendar" and "full of long meetings" and came up with a list of anti-goals to prevent the worst possible day like "Never schedule an in-person meeting when it can otherwise be accomplished via email or phone (or not at all)" or "No more than 2 hours of scheduled time per day."

Anti-goals remind me of the process of creating career or dating criteria. Something I suggest some clients do when looking for the next job, career, or relationship. Yes, you think of what you want out of a career or relationship based on your needs and values, and create criteria from it, but also from experience. If you don't enjoy long commutes or working in an office, then you would list something like "15-minute commute or less" or "work from home." Some will be non-negotiables. Experience -what you like and don't like- informs goals or anti-goals.

Now, with the criteria suggestion, I advise clients to try to frame it more as what they want (pro) than what they don't (anti) even if it's borne from anti-goals. I guess I've read and heard too much of the power of positive thinking and framing e.g., pro-peace versus anti-war, and ways to counter our natural negativity bias.

This said, if you truly don't know what you want then it's not a bad idea to think of what you don't want to get closer to what it is you want. It's a way to sharpen focus and clarity. A client decided to move back to Jamaica after she realized what she doesn't want: a fast-paced work environment, long hours, and office politics. She also is moving closer to what she does want: to be by the ocean, to have a simpler life and to work remotely.

When growing up, I struggled with the question of who I wanted to be or what I wanted to do before I got into teaching and coaching. There was a lot to choose from and nothing really stuck out. I recall some professions I didn't want to do such as being a doctor or nurse. I don't think I could stomach some things that generally go with those professions. Lo and behold, I'm dealing with some of those things now as a mother but that's another story. :)

As Wilkinson and our negativity bias would attest to, it’s often easier to think about what you don’t want than what you do. I just wouldn't get caught up in the anti-aspect of it but rather the solutions to it. I still believe it's good to have a vision of what you want, even if thinking about what you don't gets you there.


Ps. If you would like guidance with finding clarity, apply here for a Get Acquainted Call to see if I can help.

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