286. Let's talk about Anti-Goals (Replay)

As we enter into the new year and bid farewell to 2021, the topic of goals and goal-setting seems like an appropriate one to give some attention to. Today we are approaching it from a slightly different direction, looking at the idea of 'anti-goals', and how these might help you in your work and personal life. Simply put, anti-goals are a way to work backward from an undesirable outcome and use these as motivation and an incentive to avoid the actions or circumstances that might facilitate it. In our conversation, we look at the two different methods for coming up with anti-goals that we can think of and also relate these ideas to other goal-setting approaches we have spoken about in the past. Top tips that arise in our chat include the need for specificity, building a diverse toolkit for achieving success, and the need for different approaches in each situation or project. So to hear it all, make sure to come down the rabbit hole with us, today!

Key Points From This Episode:

  • How we have approached goals and motivation in past episodes of the podcast. 
  • Looking at how 'anti-goals' fit into a useful toolkit for achieving desired results.
  • Working backwards from worst-case scenarios to create anti-goals. 
  • The need to be specific and narrowing down the focus of the anti-goal. 
  • Relating the anti-goals framework to the Agile manifesto.  
  • Weighing the two different routes to defining anti-goals and our personal preferences. 
  • Combining traditional goal-setting with anti-goals as a reinforcement. 


Transcript for Episode 286. Let's talk about Anti-Goals (Replay)


[0:00:01.9] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast. Living large in New York. I am rabbit number one, Michael Nunez. Rabbit number two with me.

[0:00:13.0] DA: Dave Anderson. 

[0:00:14.5] MN: Rabbit number three.

[0:00:16.4] SC: Sophie Creutz.

[0:00:17.7] MN: Rabbit number four.

[0:00:19.7] RL: Raymond Lam.

[0:00:21.6] MN: Today, we’re talking about, hey, have you realized, it’s 2022. Let’s talk about anti-goals, we’re going to talk about some anti-goals today. First though, I imagine, we’ve all had goals in 2020 and we all know how that went and it’s 2022 and we may need to find a different pattern for us to better set ourselves up for this new year.

[0:00:44.9] SC: Yeah, we got to shift our goal-making a little bit for this new day and age, don’t we?

[0:00:53.5] DA: Yeah, we’ve talked about resolutions occasionally in the past and past episodes, we talked about resolutions and how to how to keep them with smart goals in episode number 45 so that’s structuring your goals, making very specific statements that will carry you to following through hopefully, in your goal? We also talk about ways to keep yourself motivated in 133 and structure and clarity as a thing that leaves the team success, in one of the Aristotle episodes that you all did in 223. I think any goals are kind of like tangential. It’s like you can’t have this idea without thinking about those other ideas too.

[0:01:46.0] MN: Right, it’s like a combination of creative — what is needed for an anti-goal? I think when we were looking up some talks and articles on this. You sound like you still needed to do some kind of goal-setting or there was an idea that you wanted to follow and then you found the inverse of that.

[0:02:09.3] DA: With anti-goals, it’s kind of hard to consider them in a vacuum. We’ve talked about goal-setting and motivation in past episodes and so in way back in episode number 45, we talked about resolutions and how to keep them with smart goals, setting really specific, descriptive statements that help you follow through on actually measuring and achieving your goals and in 133, we talked about motivation, the continuing – kind of keeping the engine going and getting yourself across the line. And we also talked very recently, you guys talked about structure and clarity related to the Aristotle project in 223.That’s all the tattoos that I’m seeing. I think there’s some more because I feel like this always comes up. But anti-goals is just like another tool in that toolkit.

[0:03:02.8] SC: Yeah, do we have any examples of what an anti-goal might be?

[0:03:08.6] MN: I think I saw in the article, one of the articles that I was reading to kind of further understand what is an anti-goal and I think it was, the person was identifying what is the worst possible day look like to them?

[0:03:25.7] SC: Right.

[0:03:26.5] MN: Which I thought was interesting, it’s just like – and I’ll read some off the list. Full of long meetings, a packed calendar, dealing with people we don’t like or trust. And then being able to work backwards from there is what the article says.

[0:03:41.6] DA: Right and it’s like, they maybe are not able to articulate what a wonderful day it looks like but they definitely know what a bad day looks like.

[0:03:51.0] MN: Yeah. Number one, never schedule and in-person meeting when it can otherwise be accomplished via email or phone or not at all, right? I guess the idea of always checking that assessment to ensure that those anti-goals are set and then you kind of work off of that, which is really very interesting. I don’t – I’m trying to look at having a good day but rarely do I ever look at what it takes to make it a bad day, which I thought this article did a good job doing that.

[0:04:21.1] DA: Yeah.

[0:04:21.5] SC: Yeah. There’s this interesting philosophy that I found in relation to this idea. Apparently, Warren Buffett had a business partner named Charlie Munger and he was known to say, “Tell me where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.”

The idea being — this is how you form anti-goals. “I don’t want to die, therefore, I will not go to the place where supposedly I will die” right? I don’t want to be in a lot of meetings, therefore, blank, how do I avoid being in a lot of meetings?

[0:05:01.6] DA: Yeah, if you tell me that I will die at a meeting then I will never attend another meeting in my life.

[0:05:06.4] SC: Well, statistically, you see… I’m just kidding.

[0:05:09.6] MN: Right, that’s true.

[0:05:11.7] DA: If you're into many meetings then maybe you will die in a meeting. Wow, brutal. I like this extension of that, this kind of going back to the root of modern thinking with stoic philosophy, there’s this idea of the premeditation of evil is like thinking about the worse case scenarios, which is – we also talked about that as well, we talked about –

[0:05:36.1] SC: The premortem, right?

[0:05:37.7] DA: The premortem, yeah, exactly. Think about the ways that you're going to die so that you don’t die.

[0:05:42.8] SC: Right, let’s assume death will occur how it might occur, yeah.

[0:05:48.9] DA: Yeah, it’s like, the good thing about the ways that meetings might happen or the ways that those people might get on to your calendar that you actually won’t get anything, any benefit from talking to. How do you actually articulate that and set a goal that is specific that avoids it?

[0:06:09.4] SC: Right, yeah. To get a little bit more specific about writing code, I guess, if you have an anti-goal of never write any tests, right? That could be a way that you end up in a scenario where you’re always seeing bugs, things are always breaking in production, right? Then it’s about thinking about – I guess, the next step being how do I avoid that, right? If my anti-goal is, never write tests, does that mean I should then set a pro-goal?

[0:06:41.8] DA: Yeah.

[0:06:42.6] SC: Of writing tests?

[0:06:44.2] DA: I mean, I guess you can satisfy that goal so easily though, there’s an interesting idea with smart goals about having it be measurable and attainable but I guess with anti-goals or even with smart goals, you can set a goal that is so easy that you will just check the box instantly which I think I definitely done this before in my goal-setting where it’s like, I’m just going to show up. That’s my goal, I’m just going to walk in the door.

That is the first step but then after you beat your anti-goal of not writing a test, then where the further constraints on the tests that you will choose to write or not write.

[0:07:34.4] RL: Yeah, I also had an ideal of comparing how anti-goals are similar to how we are doing test driven development where the happy path is our goal and our edge cases are the anti-goals but we still have to handle those edge cases in some form or fashion.

[0:07:56.1] DA: Right. The combination of those gives you more clear direction.

[0:08:00.9] MN: Right, it’s like, this function is going to do this so your test is like, when calling this function, it does not do A, B and C and D and then you can see that it does E, for example, which is really interesting. I should write anti-goals in the form of test with an “It” block and a fat arrow function at the end of it so it’s sure that I follow that path. Because it’s kind of like, it’s still a little cloudy for me because it’s like, if my anti-goal is, “I don’t’ want to be a crappy manager,” right? There could be many ways to not be a crappy one. How do you – 

[0:08:43.3] DA: Just quit.

[0:08:45.4] MN: Just don’t be a manager, Mike, if you feel – 

[0:08:47.6] DA: Go onto a mountain, don’t talk to people.

[0:08:49.7] MN: Yeah, because there’s so many ways to do – sometimes, to negate something, right? Do you have to constantly update anti-goals because they can be really slippery and the thing that you want to do like at the end of the day or do you have to have – does anti-goals only work when you have specific goals because you can come up with specific anti-goals or vice-versa? 

[0:09:12.9] DA: I feel like going back to Sophie’s like my anti-goal of like having code without tests. You can be more specific about that too where you could have an anti-goal of like, “I don’t want to have a test that isn’t understandable, isn’t clear in what it’s testing or doesn’t lead people – "

[0:09:35.7] SC: Right or maybe just I don’t want to be missing testing this piece of functionality or something like that. I want to make sure I’m always testing these API calls or I am always testing the result of all the functions on this file or I am always set, however you’re testing philosophy plays out exactly, they came out of that kind of thing. 

[0:09:59.4] DA: Yeah, I feel like an anti-goal that I very specifically have sometimes with testing is I don’t want to make a bad assumption about this thing that I am mocking out. The behavior of how it is or the response shape that it has these, then you code that into your test and then it leads people astray.

[0:10:18.9] SC: Then you write it that way. 

[0:10:20.3] DA: Yeah and people assume that that’s the truth and then it isn’t. 

[0:10:24.7] SC: Yeah. I wonder if this also really it’s to my favorite thing, red-green refactor, because the red is almost like the anti-goal, right? You write the test and then it’s not working. It’s failing and then you fix it and you’ve accomplished your goal. I don’t know, something like that. 

[0:10:47.0] DA: Yeah and it’s a signal. It’s a signal that’s like, “Oh, we got to go away from this.” 

[0:10:53.9] SC: Yeah, exactly like this is a failure we don’t want.

[0:10:58.8] DA: Yeah, I was thinking about the Agile manifesto the other day and there is some kind of anti-goals or anti-values built into this too, where they’re sharing behaviors that they prefer over other behaviors. So it’s like people over process. 

There is an implied anti-goal there, where like the anti-goal is the outcome that process becomes more important than the interactions that we have with our coworkers and we are like to slavishly following this machine that we built for ourselves. So it is like very distinct and kind of more like a value than a goal, but you could definitely think about your values like the kind of traits and attributes that you want to exemplify or not exemplify and then drive a more pointed statement from that. 

[0:11:59.6] SC: Yeah, it’s like your North Star.

[0:12:01.5] DA: Yeah, exactly, second star to the right or I guess the North Star is just in the north. It’s just the first star. 

[0:12:10.0] MN: It’s the north one, so yeah. I mean, if your goal is the North Star and the anti-goal is the other — there’s a ton of stars in the sky. I mean, what do you – 

[0:12:21.0] SC: So this is radio, you know?

[0:12:23.0] MN: Yeah. 

[0:12:24.0] SC: Remind the listener to look up. 

[0:12:27.6] MN: Yeah, if it’s dark out and if it’s sunny out, don’t look at the sun because your eyes will hurt, unless your anti-goal is to see things then it’s like, “I will look, stare straight at the sun. 

[0:12:42.7] SC: No, perhaps your anti-goal in this metaphor is never see the stars. 

[0:12:47.7] MN: Ah, well, hopefully that’s not anyone’s – 

[0:12:51.9] SC: Or never look up. 

[0:12:53.2] MN: Stars are – 

[0:12:53.6] SC: Don’t forget that the sky is there. 

[0:12:55.1] MN: Oh boy, hopefully you’re not on psychedelics while you’re doing this. 

[0:13:02.8] DA: Right, return to the cave.

[0:13:04.5] MN: Yeah.

[0:13:06.3] SC: No but sometimes people do forget to, you know, look up and see the sky and they get stuck in this whole heads down, typing, work kind of mode, so that’s what I’m thinking about there. 

[0:13:20.0] MN: It sounds like there are two different modes or ways of coming up with anti-goals where and like I mentioned previously, the person thought of like, “All right, what do I not want to experience?” and you list those things out and then come up with goals to ensure that you don’t, right? As you mentioned if, “Tell me the place where I am going to die so that I don’t go there,” is one way. And then I guess the second way of taking it is the inverse, which may feel more natural to most folks, where you do come up with goals whether that is a smart goal or a kind of like OKRs if you will. 

If that is the kind of metrics that you want to follow and then you ensure that you come up with anti-goals to help you prop up the goals in the first place. Which one do you think would work better for you? I will start with Raymond, in what direction do you think these anti-goals would work for you? 

[0:14:19.0] RL: I think I need both of them. I need to know where I am going but at the same time, I need to have like some sort of guardrail, so I don’t do something stupid. 

[0:14:27.7] MN: There you go. There you go, so a combination of both, right? You use the goal to create anti-goals that can further refine your goals. 

[0:14:36.7] RL: Exactly. 

[0:14:37.9] MN: Awesome. Dave, do you have any thoughts on what direction — would you come up with anti-goals first? I really want to try a session for myself but I don’t know what direction to start with. 

[0:14:49.3] DA: Yeah, I think it’s a good brainstorming tool for like articulating what the goal might be. You’re kind of reinforcing why you’re setting the goal too, where like you know, I think for me like just a personal goal might be to like spend more time outdoors getting exercise and stuff like that. Because recently I just haven’t done it that much and the anti-goal is like, hey, just staying inside and feeling like crappy and tired. 

Then, you know, that leads to a goal of like, “Oh, let me do something outside,” but I don’t know, I can’t articulate it right now what the goal specifically will be but I do know that if I just stay inside and I close my blinds then I am going to feel sad.

[0:15:39.9] MN: Don’t feel sad, Dave, that’s not cool.

[0:15:45.0] DA: Yeah, literally sad, this seasonal effective disorder.

[0:15:48.7] SC: Well, to be clear, it’s always okay to not be okay but to follow-up on it, I do feel like the anti-goal reinforces the goal and vice-versa, right? It’s a reminder of what could happen if you don’t achieve the goal.

[0:16:09.6] DA: The darkness timeline.

[0:16:10.8] SC: Additionally, yes, the darkest timeline. Don’t roll a six. I would like to brainstorm around some of the other ideas too, right, like smart goals. Can I make smart anti-goals?

[0:16:23.5] MN: Smart anti-goals, that’s the combination of both, the fusion of two separate kind of brainstorming sessions for goals. Yeah, I think I’d be curious to hear what would some people’s anti-goals be and how it shapes their goals? What direction do you prefer because I still think it needs to be a brainstorming session in my head as to how do I use anti-goals for goals and goals for anti-goals.

One thing for sure though is I do not want to repeat 2020. I know that 2022 is also 2020 too and I don’t want that kind of word play to bite everyone on the planet in the butt. I think this time we’ve written goals, I didn’t know about anti-goals in 2020. So in 2020 as well, too, today, I’m going to have some anti-goals and see if that makes things a little bit better for myself and I hope things are a little better for you in this year of 2022.


[0:17:35.7] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five star review and help developers like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole and never miss an episode, subscribe now however you listen to your favorite podcast. On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries and my amazing co-host, Dave Anderson and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.


Links and Resources:

Episode 45 Resolutions and How to Keep Them

Episode 133 Motivation

Episode 223 Aristotle Project - Structure and Clarity 

Warren Buffett

Charlie Munger

The Rabbit Hole on Twitter


Michael Nunez on LinkedIn

Michael Nunez on Twitter

David Anderson on LinkedIn

David Anderson on Twitter

William Jeffries on LinkedIn

William Jeffries on Twitter