In Fear of Missing Out: Practical Decision-Making in a World of Overwhelming Choice, venture capitalist, and writer Patrick J. McGinnis describe one of the greatest scourge of our time: The Fear of Missing Out and how we can become more strategic with our decision making in the age of social media.
“We make more than 35,000 decisions a day. Some impulsive, some logical, and some complex and paralyzing. Compounded with our “always-on” society, the pressures and stresses wrought by endless access to yet another option or possibility can create an endless loop of indecision and unease.”
Tim coined the term FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), as well as the related term FOBO (Fear of a Better Option) in a 2004 article titled ” Social Theory at HBS: McGinnis’ Two FOs” in The Harbus, the student newspaper of Harvard Business School(HBS). FOMO has since appeared all over pop culture and it’s even been added to a host of authoritative dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster.
Just as you could identify Homohabilis by its stone tools, FOMO sapiens exhibits a few tell-tale characteristics. In its natural habitat, FOMO sapiens can be observed yearning for all of the things, either real or imagined, that could make life perfect, if only it could have them or do them at this very moment. It’s so distracted that if it had any natural predators, it would make for shockingly easy prey.
FOMO – Fear of Missing Out
Do you ever get stressed out when you come across those delightful (read: highly selective, filtered, and cropped) photos posted by friends, family, and celebrities to your social media feed? As you scroll, you may notice that a feeling starts to build within you, perhaps best understood as a sense of anxiety. While you’re playing with your phone, it occurs to you that all of these people are living lives that are far more interesting, exciting, successful, and, frankly, Instagramable than yours. This feeling is called FOMO, short for Fear of Missing Out, and its effects are widespread.
FOMO \ ˈfō-(ˌ)mō \ Noun. Informal
1. Unwanted anxiety provoked by the perception, often aggravated via social media, that others are having experiences that are more satisfying than yours.
2. Social pressure resulting from the realization that you will miss out on or be excluded from a positive or memorable collective experience.
FOMO causes you to feel as if your life is not up to snuff based on a bunch of notions that probably don’t even correspond to reality. This gap between what you have and what you wish you had is what drives negativity, stress, and unhappiness. The more time you spend building up those feelings, the worse things get since reality will never be able to compete with your imagination.
Types of FOMO
- Aspirational FOMO, which is driven by the perception, enabled by an asymmetry of information, that a thing or experience is better than what you have in front of you at the moment; and
- Herd FOMO, which is fed by a desire for inclusion and a compulsion to partake in what you feel you’re missing.
FOBO – Fear of a Better Options
FOBO \ ˈfō-(ˌ)bō \ Noun. Informal 1. An anxiety-driven urge to hold out for something better based on the perception that a more favorable alternative or choice might exist. 2. A compulsion to preserve option value that delays decision-making or postpones it indefinitely. 3. Behavior that turns you into an entitled a**hole.
FOBO, or Fear of a Better Option, is the anxiety that something better will come along, which makes it undesirable to commit to existing choices when making a decision. It’s an affliction of abundance that drives you to keep all of your options open and to hedge your bets. As a result, you live in a world of maybes, stringing yourself and others along. Rather than assessing your options, choosing one, and moving on with your day, you delay the inevitable. It’s not unlike hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock only to pull the covers over your head and fall back asleep.
FODA—Fear of Doing Anything.
When you combine FOMO and FOBO, you end up paralyzed with a critical case of FODA—Fear of Doing Anything.
FOBO, on its own, can greatly hamper decision-making, but when you combine it with FOMO, it can lead to a Fear of Doing Anything, or FODA, and the results can be catastrophic. This phenomenon occurs when your desire to try to do everything (FOMO) crashes into your need to keep all of your options open (FOBO).
When you have FODA, you are pulled in two directions at once. Part of you is keen to run in this or that direction in pursuit of something that you perceive to be better and more rewarding than what you have at the moment. At the same time, you are unable to commit to any of those potential options. You aren’t sure where to run, and you loathe the notion of settling for just one alternative. As a result, you run around in circles getting nowhere and exhausting yourself in the process. This is a failure of leadership, focus, and commitment, and it condemns you to decision purgatory.
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”—WARREN BUFFETT
The Role of Perception
Your impression of something’s intrinsic value is based on all kinds of internal and external cues, things like family, friends, social media influencers, past experiences, and interests or passions. These are the elements that convince you that you just have to do or have something. They are not quantitative in nature but are instead shaded, at least in part, by feelings, biases, hopes, and insecurities. In a very fundamental sense, perception is a product of calculations that are highly emotional.
Aspirational in Nature
When you feel FOMO in this way, your core impulse is centered on improving your condition. What makes you want to get off the couch and chase after that party, trip, baby, or job is a belief that in doing so, your life will be better in some way than it is right now. At its core, FOMO is aspirational in nature, rooted in a search for whatever’s bigger, better, and brighter than your current surroundings.
All of the social media data points you gather online come with a downside: there is a nearly unavoidable temptation to examine the lives of others—whether you know them or not—and then assess how you stack up. People have always compared themselves to their friends and neighbors. After all, humans are inherently competitive and prone to insecurity. Yet whereas Keeping Up with the Joneses was intrinsically local, social media makes it frighteningly easy to see snapshots of other peoples’ lives no matter where they live. You can clinically assess their (online) lives and then judge what your life looks like in comparison. Of course, you have no idea if these curated images and posts correspond to reality. Thanks to information asymmetry, you can never quite know what lies behind the perfect filter.
What does success look like? It looks like freedom. When you find the power to choose what you actually want and the courage to miss out on the rest, you are finally liberated from indecision and the compulsion to have it all. Even though you’ll be eliminating options, missing out on potential experiences and opportunities, and generally limiting the scope of the things you could potentially do in your life, your overall outlook will improve. You will be more relaxed, in the flow, and free to move forward into the future without regret. Most importantly, when you learn to be decisive, you will be free from fear.
Becoming decisive is not only about eliminating destructive behavior, it’s also about gaining productivity. By operating with conviction and focus, you’re also unlocking a lot of upside for yourself. No matter how you cut it, the FOs are a tremendous waste of time and energy. When you no longer must contend with them, you will move through life with far greater speed and efficiency than you might have thought possible. Like an elite athlete or great artist, you’ll move up from the ranks of the amateurs and raise your game because all of your efforts, time, and energy will yield so much more.
What are the Stakes
- HIGH-STAKES DECISIONS are fundamental strategic determinations that will have important and potentially definitive medium- to long-term impact. They are the choices that you must absolutely get right if you want to thrive. It’s unclear, however, which is the best course of action, so they require a structured, deliberative process.
- LOW-STAKES DECISIONS are those that will frequently recur in life and business. They relate to things that must happen on a daily basis, and while they are somewhat mundane, they are necessary to make sure that the trains arrive on time, the goods show up on the shelves, and the plants get watered. When it comes to such matters, you can’t do just anything. There is a correct answer, in fact, there are probably many, so the challenge lies in choosing just one and sticking with it.
- NO-STAKES DECISIONS have zero potential to shake the universe. This includes questions like: “What color shirt should I wear?” or “Should I go for a run today? These are the minor details of your life, and there are no incorrect answers. These are choices on which you could spend time, but you shouldn’t.
When you’ve determined that a decision is either Low- or No-Stakes in nature, you will ask three final questions that will serve as a simple gut check so that you can proceed with conviction:
- Is it ephemeral? Will you have forgotten making this decision in a week (for No-Stakes Decisions) or a month (for Low-Stakes Decisions)?
- Does the decision have insignificant consequences in terms of money, time, or its impact on yourself and others?
- Can you abide by your choice, no matter what the outcome?
OVERCOMING FOMO WHEN MAKING HIGH-STAKES
- DECISIONS KEEP AN OPEN MIND: Don’t fall in love with whatever is giving you FOMO or presume a given outcome.
- KNOW WHAT MATTERS: Set criteria to determine if an opportunity meets your objectives.
- RELY ON FACTS, NOT EMOTIONS: Compile sufficient data before making a decision.
- GATHER DATA FROM MULTIPLE SOURCES: Don’t make a decision in a vacuum. Draw on the people around you—and perhaps those beyond your immediate circle—to get information and advice.
OVERCOMING FOBO WHEN MAKING HIGH-STAKES DECISIONS
- KEEP AN OPEN MIND: Don’t fall in love with any of the possible outcomes before you’ve even gotten started. If you do, you might struggle to eliminate alternatives from your opportunity set.
- KNOW WHAT MATTERS: Determine what are you trying to achieve and what you consider an acceptable outcome. List your criteria and the qualities associated with that outcome.
- RELY ON FACTS, NOT EMOTIONS: Compile all of the information you’ll need before making a decision.
- GATHER DATA FROM MULTIPLE SOURCES: Don’t make a decision in a vacuum. Draw on the people around you—and perhaps those beyond your immediate circle—to get advice.
- REMEMBER, YOU ARE CHOOSING THE BEST, NOT CUTTING THE WORST: Once you determine that all of your options are acceptable, your decision-making process is grounded in settling on the best option among the group. Eliminating options and mourning foregone opportunities is very difficult for people with FOBO; therefore, you should always orient your decision toward reinforcing the conviction that you are choosing wisely.
“Men must be decided on what they will not do, and then they are able to act withvigor in what they ought to do.”—MENCIUS
Affliction of Abundance
In order to have FOMO, you have to see what you are missing out on and believe that it could somehow be possible for you. When you boil them down to their essence, both FOMO and FOBO are afflictions of abundance. They require you to believe that you have options in life and that you could explore those opportunities under the right circumstances. That is clearly not true for everybody.
Of all of the choices you face, perhaps the most important is to learn to be decisive. If you resolve to do so as you conquer your FOs, you will notice that something magical happens. You escape the little voices in your head that cause you to run in circles when what you really should do is set a course and run in that direction.
You then start to think outside of yourself, replacing “me” with “we.” You also stop seeing the world as one fixed pie and no longer obsess about maximizing your slice. When you move through the world with clarity, you appreciate your options and gain the confidence to see that there is plenty to go around. Absent all the stress and indecision, these options instead spark gratitude. Each represents a golden opportunity to make the best decisions for yourself, your family, your friends, and your community.
Just remember, as you contemplate your relationship with technology and explore different ways to miss out, always keep the following basic precepts in mind:
- The goal isn’t abstinence; it’s control.
- Find ways to free yourself from “always on” mode.
- Put technology in its place.
- Make time for mindfulness, in whatever form that takes for you.