Hiring and Growth

In Addition to Setting Goals, Try Setting a Few Anti-Goals

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
Two people talk to each other

Watch any episode of Shark Tank and it’s clear Mark Cuban loves setting and achieving goals. But Cuban also loves anti-goals: not the things he wants to happen, but things he doesn’t want to happen—like having his time consumed with meetings that don’t meet his criteria. As Cuban says, “I don’t [usually] do meetings or phone calls. I’ll do a meeting if you’re going to write me a check. I’ll do a meeting if there’s a really good reason to help close a deal. Other than that, it’s email.”

In short, anti-goals flip the script. Rather than envision the perfect outcome, or the perfect process to achieve that outcome, anti-goals help you avoid certain outcomes along the way.

Cuban doesn’t want to forget a conversation; email gives him a record. Cuban doesn’t want to have the time structure that meetings impose on his day; email lets him respond when he chooses. Moreover, email allows him to organize conversations into files so that he can easily refer back to them.  

Cuban’s goal is to be productive. His anti-goals help him to excel at that. 

So how do you set an anti-goal?

Start with your goal

This part is easy. Decide what you want to accomplish and be as specific as possible. Sure, “grow revenue” is a goal, but what does it mean? Make it specific. For example, “Increase total revenue by 20% this year” is an objective goal that allows you to measure your progress. 

Next, flip your goal around

Goals help you create a path towards success. Anti-goals help you create a path that avoids failure.

Are there negative outcomes that come with achieving your goal, which you’d like to avoid? Maybe rapid revenue growth will overwhelm your operations. Maybe a greater focus on growing your customer base will leave current customers feeling under-appreciated, under-serviced, or neglected.

For example, I worked for a company where salespeople were compensated based solely on total revenue booked. To achieve their sales targets, a few would discount prices to break-even levels. They didn’t care about profitability; they only cared about gross revenue. 

The goal was to hit specific revenue targets; one of the anti-goals should have been to avoid a dip in profit levels.

Maybe your anti-goals will help you to avoid building a toxic culture, or avoid nurturing unproductive professional relationships. Think about the kind of company you don’t want to own, or the kind of person you don’t want to be, and use your anti-goals to help you steer clear.

Finally, create a process that achieves the goal and anti-goal

Let’s say your goal is to build a thriving business, but you don’t want running your business to take over your life.  

An easy way to establish specific anti-goals is to think about a day when you were particularly frustrated. First, establish what caused you to feel that way. Maybe meetings ran over, your calendar left you no room to breathe, or employees called you at night and interrupted your time with family or friends. 

Next, set some anti-goals:

  • Meetings will be limited to 20 minutes
  • No more than two meetings per day
  • No more than three hours of scheduled time per day
  • No after-hours calls unless there’s a genuine emergency (guidelines for which you will create and distribute)

Consider the last item. If employees work a night shift, you need to know if there are problems. That’s a goal. But you don’t want to be interrupted unnecessarily; that’s the anti-goal. 

My friend who runs a manufacturing facility has a second phone just for emergencies. The only people who have the number are supervisors working night shifts. In the evenings, he can turn off his “regular” phone without worrying he’ll miss a crucial call. His goal is to be available; his anti-goal is to ensure the need to be available doesn’t take over his personal life.

Keep both ends in mind

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey recommends starting with the end in mind. For most people, that involves focusing on positive outcomes. But achieving goals can come with some unintended consequences. 

You may create a high-performance culture, but find your relentless focus on results slowly chips away at employee engagement and even drives your best people away. You may build a culture where the most qualified employee always gets promoted, but find that achieving a meritocracy creates unhealthy and counterproductive competition. You may build a $10 million company  and find that the personal cost—especially in terms of personal fulfillment and overall life satisfaction—is simply too high.

Set a goal. Picture what success looks like. Then picture what failure looks like, even if (maybe especially if) you manage to achieve your goal. And then set a few anti-goals to keep you on course.

Because success isn’t success if you don’t enjoy the process—or who you become in the process.

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
Back to top