Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Anti-goals (or non-goals)

We are obsessed with goals. Whether it’s identifying your personal True North or setting a corporate big hairy audacious goal, there are books written about it. There are techniques to formulate your life goals that tap from different cultures (e.g., Japanese concept of ikigai as an intersection of what we love, what the world needs, what we are good at, and what we can get paid for).  There are resources on how to determine your ultimate destination, and an accompanying set of exercises of what we must do to secure that target.

We are told to keep our eyes on the prize, but in order to do “this”, it’s just as important to know “not that”.

I call the “not that” part of “this, not that”, an anti-goal, or non-goal.

When my first startup hit the wall of pain that was exponential growth, I needed to systemize priorities of our projects. Our first system of filing project plans for approval required the bare minimum:

  • Project title
  • Name of the project champion
  • One line goal summary
  • Description of the project
  • Estimated time required

Sometimes I saw our engineers as ferociously devoted artists seeking for perfection, with unquenchable thirst to build in more useful features. The one line goal wasn’t sufficient to mark their end point, for one reason or another. To delineate what is clearly within the project and what is not, the second system of filing project plans included a list of anti-goals, things we should call out that will NOT be accomplished by this project.

Although it was a way for me to prevent the engineers’ tendency for “scope-creep*”, I found myself continuing to require the declaration of anti-goals from then on.

Depending on the extremity (?) of it, it can be simply be a non-goal. If I want to be adamant and actively preventing myself from the project covering something, I call it out as an anti-goal.

Every time I had to write out a goal, for myself or others, I would write an anti-goal and/or a non-goal. Sometimes I’d include it when I submitted my goal, other times, I would keep it to myself and only submit the goal. But without fail, I would go through the exercise of thinking what would NOT be covered under this goal.

An Example of an anti-goal

“The annual report project is to comply with the statutory requirement as a state agency vs. making it a marketing collateral” can defy people’s expectations that the end product can be distributed to gain support of the organization, a common use for a report of that type. It can shape other conversations such as budget (minimum), and resources needed (graphics dept. may be excused), and the marketing and fundraising folks will not be counting on this report as something they can hand out to their sponsors.

If well-formed goals are SMART goals, that is:




Relevant, and


anti- or non-goals can help shape our goals by what we don’t have to measure because we don’t care, and establishing what is relevant by what isn’t. A useful non-goal identifies outcomes that are often paired with, related to, or is a by-product of the stated goal. A useful anti-goal states what you specifically want to avoid: e.g., goal to find a well-paid job, can have an anti-goal to buy new clothes (per Thoreau: “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”).

Anti-goals can:

  • Nudge us to think through the goal more clearly and arrive at a more focused goal


  • Result in a more precise description of the goal, by also stating what would not be the goal (esp. if the project spans multiple months, the anti-goals serve as a reminder to the project champions a boundary of scope)


  • Help define what you are actually trying to avoid, if any


  • Shape expectations of stakeholders, who might have assumptions that there will be other accomplishments/by-products that they can expect from the stated goal

(e.g., politicians might assume that the increase in number of startups an accelerator “graduates” equates to (immediate) job growth, when economic development practitioners know that the heart of startup survival in early years is to limit the job positions until funding comes through)

  • Speak to the intent of the project, the “why” behind the goal but stating what it isn’t

It turns out Warren Buffet was into anti-goals! Hope that’s enough encouragement to experiment with it.


*scope-creep: where the scope keeps expanding and tucked under the already approved goal, as if the new features were required to meet the original goal

Photo: Pulgas Water Temple in Woodside, California, USA, which marks the end of Hetch Hetchy aquaduct, and was built to celebrate its completion

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This entry was posted on October 9, 2018 by in Entrepreneurship, Management, Vocabulary.
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