Defeating FOMO

Two of my closest friends are avid board gamers. They host private game nights at their homes and public game nights at various places in the community all the time. I try to make it to some of these, but the reality of my life as a father of three makes it difficult to make it to many of them.

Later on, I’ll hear about something fun that they did at one game night or a great game that they played and I’ll have this strong sense that I’m missing out on something. It makes me feel… for lack of a better word… kind of sad and regretful. I simply feel like I’m missing out.

That feeling is called FOMO, which is just an acronym for the “fear of missing out.” I feel it strongly with the above board game example, but I also feel it with other things in my life, like reading books – I am friends with several avid readers and I sometimes feel like I’m missing out on reading some of the great books they love.

I wrote in a general sense about FOMO a few years back, and here’s what I said:

FOMO, of course, refers to the fear of missing out – a sense that you’re at the wrong conference session, attending the wrong after-party, or talking with the wrong people. “This session/party/meeting isn’t great – maybe there’s something better I should be at,” goes the thought, and it’s often followed by anxiety and second-guessing.

Later:

Here’s the thing: our life is like a conference. The more time we spend pining for the great thing that might be around that next corner, the less time we spend getting as much value as we can from what’s going on in front of us.

It’s true for spending. I have this gadget that does a lot of things that I want, but there’s this better gadget at the store. I have a great closet full of clothes, but there’s this stunning new outfit at the store that I want.

It’s true for time spent. I could spend time with my kids, but there might be a great show on television. I could spend time reading this book, but there might be something interesting going on over at the club.

It’s true over and over again in life. We are constantly sacrificing the good for the potential of slightly better. Frankly, that’s a mistake.

The poison of the “fear of missing out,” in other words, is that it convinces you to constantly devalue what you already have that’s good because there’s something that might be better on the other side of the fence. A “fear of missing out” causes me to feel regret about a wonderful thing I might be doing some evening because I feel like I’m “missing out” on that game night with my friends. A “fear of missing out” might cause me to skip some book I might love on my bedside table out of a sense of “missing out” on this great book that my other friend just finished and is raving about.

It’s that sense that what you’re doing is somehow inherently less valuable than what you could be doing that can cause a person to stop paying attention to what they have and start constantly chasing what they don’t have. You don’t appreciate your home because you’re obsessed with having the “perfect” home. You don’t appreciate the books on your shelf because you don’t have the “best” books. And so on.

Soon, your money and time and energy is spent on chasing those “better” things… and yet you’re never happy because someone always has this great book they’re talking about that you haven’t read, or someone always lives in a nicer house straight out of Architectural Digest, and that leaves you feeling like you’re missing out.

Once you really give into FOMO, it never really stops. It just constantly nudges you to want something else, because what you have is never enough.

How do you defeat the FOMO monster? Here are eight tactics I often use to keep FOMO at bay in my own life.

Be Aware of It

The first strategy is to simply be aware of when it’s happening.

If I feel negative in any way because I’ve seen someone owning a nice house or a friend has played a great game or another friend has read a great book, that’s pure unadulterated FOMO. I notice it and remind myself that it’s absolutely silly.

If I find myself listing more and more and more options in terms of what to do at a given moment, that’s pure FOMO. I notice it and remind myself that endless options don’t help anyone.

If I’m considering buying something new even when I already have similar things I’m excited about at home (like books), that’s FOMO at work. I recognize it and do my best to just laugh it off.

Those are the most common situations where FOMO pops up in my life. Simply being able to recognize that feeling when it occurs and to simply stop for a moment and reflect on it and how silly that feeling is often nips it right in the bud, letting me move on with life. I stop feeling bad because my friend did something cool. I stop listing endless options and focus on just a few. I put that item down and don’t buy it.

Make a Quick Decision and Stick with It

FOMO tends to expand over time with the amount of attention you give to it. The longer you sit around and hesitate when it comes to a decision, the more time you give FOMO to work its magic and make you unhappy with the options.

A good way to get around this is to be quick and decisive. Figure out what it is that you want to do or want to buy quickly, don’t dawdle on the decision, make it, and stick with it. Move forward on the path you’ve chosen and keep your eyes on that path, not worrying about what paths might have been.

The longer you dwell on the options and the more you think abut what paths might have been, the more likely you are to spend money on something solely out of a misplaced fear of missing out and the more likely you are to regret whatever it is you’ve chosen. Both are bad outcomes.

Be decisive. Stick with your decision.

“But what if it ends up being a bad decision?” That’s not going to be solved by making your decision-making process longer in the moment. It’s going to be solved by reflecting on your decisions later, outside of the heat of the moment, and figuring out in that removed situation which of the options truly was the best one, which can then inform your decisions moving forward. Reflection on your recent decisions – an after-action review, in other words – is an incredibly powerful tool for refining your own decision making.

Eliminate Distractions in the Moment

Focusing on the moment is almost always a great choice. The more you can focus on the moment at hand, the less likely you are to have thoughts of missing out bubble up in your mind.

There are a bunch of ways to improve your focus and eliminate distractions in the moment. I’ll point at two that work really well for me.

First, turn off that cell phone or, better yet, leave it somewhere else. You don’t need to have your cell phone around constantly. You’re not going to “miss out” on anything of genuine importance if someone texts you and you don’t see it for an hour or two. You’re not going to “miss out” on anything of genuine importance if you ignore social media for a while. Just leave the phone turned off or, even better, in another room.

Second, practice mindfulness meditation. This is essentially brain training for focus that actually works. Just put aside a few minutes each day to meditate in a focused way on your breathing or on a simple short phrase. I do this each day for fifteen minutes, and often twice a day. I just sit in a chair, close my eyes, and focus on my breathing – breathe in, breathe out, in, out… you get the idea. When my mind wanders away from the breathing and I notice it, I just nudge my focus back to my breathing.

The first technique helps in the moment. The second technique makes my ability to focus stronger over the long term. Both are really useful.

Flip the Picture and Imagine the FOMO on What You’re Doing

If I start feeling like I’m “missing out” on something and that’s making me feel bad or nudging me to buy something, I start considering what I would be missing out on if I did follow that other path.

Let’s say a close friend of mine is telling me about this great game he played or this great book he read or whatever it might be. Then another close friend tells me about the same thing.

I might start feeling like I’m missing out on that thing and that might nudge me to want to buy that thing.

But what would I be missing to do that? I can look at my bookshelf and see several books I am personally excited about reading. Buying this new book and putting it at the top of the queue means missing out on those others.

I can do essentially the same thing for board games – buying a new one moves other ones I’m already excited about out of the way.

Furthermore, pouring money into those things has an opportunity cost that takes away from other life goals. That $10 on a book or $30 on a board game is probably better used for any number of other goals in my life, and spending money on the book or game takes away from those goals.

Not only am I missing out on those other life opportunities, I’m also missing out on the joy of the things I already have.

Recognizing those two things simultaneously kills a lot of FOMO.

Know What Your Goals and Values Are

A “fear of missing out” sometimes is borne out of being unsure of what your goals and values actually are.

As humans, we’re made up of a big messy pile of goals and values that sometimes contradict each other. It’s in those contradictions that we often find ourselves getting in trouble. We choose to do something that’s right in line with one value but actually contradicts another and we’re left feeling divided and uncertain – as we should be.

One great way to tighten all of that up and eliminate at least some of those kinds of contradictions is to simply think about and clarify one’s goals and values. What is truly most important to us in life? What are we working towards in life?

For me, for example, being a good parent is pretty close to the absolute top of my values and goals. I want to be a great parent that helps my children become independent and self-sustaining adults who can solve their own problems. That’s huge for me.

Sometimes, when I get a sense of missing out, I recognize that I missed out on some lesser event because I’m fulfilling that role as parent. When I recognize that I’m only “missing out” because I’m doing something of more importance to the central goals and values in my life, then that sense of missing out goes away.

Naturally, there’s a balance. I recognize that some personal self care time is very important for me to be a good parent. I need some time where I’m not a parent, to read and engage in hobbies and spend time with friends and reflect. I tend to take that time when it’s least important to the kids – usually on a day where they have activities with their friends or in the evening when they’re relaxing and going to bed early.

When I’m actually needed as a parent, the kids take priority, and I deeply understand that.

Make Sure What You’re Doing Lines Up with Those Goals and Values

While this runs in parallel with the previous point, it’s a little bit different than that.

I’ve noticed that FOMO pops up whenever I’m not using my time very effectively. I might not consciously realize it, but if I’m theoretically trying to live out some value or pursue some goal and I’m not doing it very effectively, my sense of “missing out” on a better approach to other lesser values or goals can pop up.

If I’m parenting and being uninvolved in it or if I’m trying to be a good husband but not into the moment, and then my mind wanders to a game night with friends where I could be really engaged with a new game that I bought and brought to play, I’m feeling FOMO.

How do I kill that sense? For me, self-reflection is the key. I’m constantly asking myself how I can be the best I can possibly be at the important things in my life. How can I be a better parent, both in general and in these specific situations? How can I be a better husband? How can I be a better friend? How can I be a better thinker? Writer?

For me, the most effective tool for processing thoughts like this is through journaling. I use the “three morning pages” technique, which means that in the morning most days, I just open up a journal and start writing until I fill three pages. I write down something that’s concerning me, then as I’m writing those sentences, a follow up thought coalesces in my head, and I write that one down, and then a follow up to that coalesces, and I write that down, and so on.

That technique is insanely helpful for me in terms of figuring out what my values and goals really are and, more importantly, how I can act them out most effectively in the world. When I’m really nailing a goal or value that’s really important to me, FOMO is a complete non-factor, and journaling helps me get to that state. (I tend to call that state being “in the zone.”)

Appreciate That Your Friends Can Have Great Experiences and You Don’t Have to Match or Duplicate Them

For a long time, whenever a friend would have a great experience that they shared with me, I felt like I had to match that experience and be involved with it in some way. I was missing out if I didn’t also go to this place that they went. I was missing out if I didn’t also play that game (and that often meant I needed to buy it). I was missing out if I didn’t also read that book (which sometimes meant buying it).

What I learned is that, aside from truly peak experiences where they’re overflowing with a sincere recommendation to “try this game” or “read this book” (which usually came with an offer to lend it to me), there’s not really a need to duplicate or match their experiences.

First of all, I can often learn the highlights of that experience from my friend and thus experiencing it myself doesn’t add all that much. If a friend read a “decent” book and gave me the highlights, there’s not a lot of added value in reading it myself unless I’m already independently super excited about it. I’m far better off reading a different book and sharing the highlights of that book with a friend, and this frees me from FOMO because I can focus on books I already have rather than chasing down that book my friend read.

Second, when a friend is relaying to me his or her experience with something I don’t have experience with myself, it’s much easier to give my full attention to them, let them lead the conversation, ask good follow up questions, and thus tighten our social bond. There are few better ways to have a conversation that really clicks with the other person than to let them share about something they’ve experienced that you haven’t. Listening and asking meaningful follow up questions in a one-on-one friendly environment builds a social bond while also providing a great opportunity to learn.

Now, sharing a peak experience with someone, such as talking about a book you both loved, is great, but most experiences aren’t ones that people truly love, and these types of conversations (where you listen and ask questions about an experience) extract more value (socially and in terms of understanding that experience) than actually feeling like you’re missing out and grabbing the book yourself can ever achieve.

I’m not missing out a bit when I listen to a friend and ask questions of a friend as they’re describing a good-but-not-great book or a good-but-not-great trip or a good-but-not-great or even a bad version of anything. I alleviate any small sense of FOMO while also tightening our social bond.

Stop Paying Attention to Social Media and ‘Junk’ News

Social media and “junk” news (by this, I mean news that’s primarily intended to convince you to buy a product or buy a service or spend money on an experience) are giant FOMO generators. You get a strong sense that you’re “missing out” on things that other people are deeply enjoying, things that are changing their lives, and that sense of “missing out” can quickly drive you to chase that thing you perceive yourself missing out on. With “disconnected” communication like “junk” news and social media, where there’s no real human contact, often the only outlet is to just buy that thing for yourself.

The solution’s easy: cut back on social media and junk news. Use social media less as a “brag box” and more as a way to pull people into actual face-to-face social events with you. Turn off junk news entirely – there’s almost nothing of value there.

Final Thoughts

FOMO is really effective at getting people to spend money chasing something that isn’t real. Usually, you’re not really “missing out” at all, or if you are missing out, you’re not missing out on something that can be bought with dollars and cents.

Learning to control and kill FOMO can kill a lot of negative feelings and a lot of bad spending impulses, and that ends up being only a big benefit for you. Seek to eliminate FOMO from your life and you’ll be in a better spot financially and personally.

Good luck!

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