In my last blog post and video, I suggested a novel way of planning for this next year. The basic idea of future-based goals-setting is to cast yourself (in your imagination) out into the future and look back at the year that has passed. This makes a significant cognitive difference to how you view the forthcoming year. In essence it turns the uncertainty of stretch goals into memories you can experience as they unfold in real time. Although that last article and this one were posted sequentially, each one stands alone.
No time to read, watch the 9 minute video instead!
Fear of Commitment
One of the things that most of us have experienced is the fear of committing to some big change. It may have been quitting smoking or losing weight –or maybe you wanted to write a book but told no one. What keeps us from publicly (or even privately) committing to big and transformational goals? For one thing, many of us have a voice in our heads telling us that we may fail. Since we all have a predisposition to focus more on the negative than the positive, fear can stop you from committing to an important personal change or business accomplishment. Instead of focusing on the amazing possibility of being a non-smoker, or feeling fit and strong, we worry about the shame or disappointment of failing.
Lines in the Temporal Sand
Beginnings or endings are the most psychologically primed time to set goals. But what informs the goals we set and how big or small they are?
Most of us strive to accomplish way more than we have. We envision a future that is extraordinary and more satisfying than the life or work we currently have. But how many times have you considered starting a new business, hitting a new athletic high, quitting a bad habit and then thought – I’ll do that when….
To fulfill that vision, we need to create goals, projects, and action plans. Instead, we hold back. It’s so common that as I talk to many coaching clients about their goals, they are regularly timid in their aims. Instead of reaching for the extraordinary, they set incremental and easily achievable goals.
Because of our preference for the negative, we come to have regret aversion — a tendency to avoid anything we might later regret. On the one hand that can be incredibly powerful and useful. Regret aversion helps us to regulate our behavior. You could see it as the disciplinarian of the Id. For example, if you are trying to eat healthily, regret aversion stops you from having a tempting piece of cake. Instead of indulging, you envision the number on the scale tomorrow and the regret you’ll feel. Maybe you go to bed early, in the face of a tempting next episode of Game of Thrones. But, because you know that your morning run will be miserable on 4 hours sleep, you turn off the TV and get to bed. When we perform these self-regulating behaviors we often take advantage of regret aversion.
Future Self Is Disappointed
To forego these self-defeating behaviors we mentally travel through time and consult with our “Future Selves”. Then, we decide what to do now based on that anticipated feeling.
We regularly make inconsequential decisions through the power of regret aversion. A menu features both fettuccini alfredo and a Caprese salad. You choose the salad despite the temptation of the creamy alfredo sauce. Why? Because you’re trying to avoid the regret of waking up realizing you’ve blown your fat-free diet. You know that the loss of the fettuccini will not plague your thoughts beyond a few minutes. It’s a low-stakes decision.
Failing Before You Begin
But regret aversion can be undermining when it impacts higher-stakes decisions. Imagine you’re up for a job. And it’s a really exciting job. But you’re kind of uncertain about whether you’re qualified. And so instead of sending off your resume and looking at your LinkedIn contacts and doing everything you can to get the job, you sort of pull your punch. You don’t really go for it, instead sending your resume through the LinkedIn automatic application. No networking, or amassing recommendations, or even a cover letter. It’s a half assed way of applying for a job.
How does that happen? Likely you’re afraid that if you don’t get the job, having gotten up your hopes, you’d be disappointed. That anticipated potential disappointment is so powerful that you do it meagerly.
Regret aversion undermines our ability to be all that we’re committed to being. When you’re doing future based goal-setting, and you’re looking out of the future. The point is for you to paint the picture of the year you’re committed to having — or the arc of your marriage or your child’s years in middle school.
If you’re concerned about being disappointed or failing, it’s tempting to shrink your vision. Instead of planning to run a marathon you think about running a 10K; you don’t aim to grow your company to a $12m Series A, but compromise and think, “we’ll just get a $1m convertible note”. Shrinking your vision also diminishes you. You have folded in on yourself instead of expanding out.
We do this all the time, hedging our bets with respect to the most important decisions. One would think that our FOMO (fear of missing out) would over-power our regret aversion. But often, it doesn’t.
Seize the Shame
Having said that, you can use regret aversion to your advantage even on important decisions. You can craft a “punishment” that you will face if you fail. Use that stick as an extra incentive to achieve the goal. You imagine getting the silver medal –which is almost worse than not getting any medal (ask any 2nd place winner). That experience of regret aversion pushes you to go for gold!
The bottom line is, do not let regret aversion suppress your genuine vision of the future. Whatever you are crafting for your future, notice if you’re hedging or pulling your punches. As you distinguish that you’re doing that, make a conscious choice to transcend that fear or anticipated regret. Go big! Take the risk of future dismay and use it to propel you.