Strategy

The inventor of FOMO explains how to overcome decision paralysis

“To attack FOMO, you need to deeply think about whether your perception at all corresponds to reality.”

John Eder / Getty Images

With Amazon, Netflix, LinkedIn, and Instagram at our fingertips, personal and professional choices seem infinite. This information overload — layered on top of the constant ability to compare ourselves to others — can induce decision paralysis.

Decision paralysis is compounded by two universal emotions: FOMO, the fear of missing out, and FOBO, the fear of better options.

This week, Inverse consulted Patrick McGinnis, a venture capitalist and author who coined the terms in a 2004 article for the Harvard Business School newspaper, The Harbus.

McGinnis shares four strategies to overcome FOBO and FOMO along with how to become a faster, more effective decision maker.

“Unlike FOMO, where you run after everything, with FOBO, you actually never commit to anything, because you are hoping that the perfect option will come along to make your decision easy,” McGinnis tells Inverse.

This “perfect option” rarely arises and people end up in perpetual limbo, avoiding making concrete decisions. To move forward in life, McGinnis says you have to choose wisely and in a timely manner. In order to do so, you need to engage with reality, not your perception of reality.

“We are all fearful of living suboptimal lives,” McGinnis says. “But if you never choose anything, you can't move on to your next set of opportunities and decisions. It's really helpful to know that a big part of moving past both of these is being okay with letting go of what you can't have in that moment — and then living in the moment.”

I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.

How FOBO and FOMO sabotage success — Both FOBO and FOMO are driven by living in a choice-rich environment, a perception that’s rooted in privilege.

“People assume that the amount of options that they have in front of them will just continue to increase and increase and increase,” McGinnis says. “But in fact, things happen. We have pandemics, we have wars, we have recessions, and things can disappear just as easily as they can appear.”

Without circumstances forcing decision making to be ruled by necessity, people can get sucked into FOMO and FOBO. They feel the sometimes overwhelming desire to “maximize,” McGinnis explains.

“When you have FOMO and FOBO, you're inside your head in this vortex of emotion and fear and anxiety,” McGinnis says. “In an age where we have so much data coming at us, it is so easy to compare ourselves to other people that we are often overwhelmed in decision making in our careers.”

In a 2018 poll conducted by LinkedIn, two out of three employees report feeling FOBO when making a career decision. This pervasive phenomenon implies people are “not committed to the path they're on,” McGinnis says, a trait that can tank people’s career goals.

This cycle of comparison is harmful because people “take their eyes off the ball” and the things that are actually worthy of their attention. If you are spending a lot of time in your head, you are not executing.

“Leadership, and the ability to build new things, is all about being decisive,” McGinnis says. “Indecisive people cannot build new things or lead organizations.”

FOMO and FOBO don’t just sabotage future success. They can undermine the present.

‘When you're feeling FOMO and FOBO, what you're not feeling is gratitude for the things that you do enjoy,” McGinnis says.

“When we have these feelings, oftentimes because we're looking for the best thing, and we want something better, what we don't do is appreciate what we have in front of us. And quite the opposite, we actually degrade those things.”

“You start to sort of view your life not by the reality of the things that you enjoy but from a scarcity mindset.”

A major remedy for FOMO and FOBO is mindfulness, which can pull you out of your imagination and put you into the present moment and the reality of where you are, he adds.

“Mindfulness is about replacing fear with facts and intuition, and being comfortable that you can't have everything.”

How to overcome FOBO and FOMO? FOMO and FOBO are often rooted in this information asymmetry between what you have at the moment and what you think is out there that is better for you, McGinnis explains. The tendency to overanalyze isn’t new but has become more prevalent in the age of social media and the internet.

“All of our lives have become Tinder-ized with information overload about what our options are, and our ability to easily compare ourselves with other people in our community or across the world has made these things far more pernicious than ever,” McGinnis says.

“FOMO is a perception that there's something better out there than what you're doing at the moment combined with a desire to be part of the crowd. To attack FOMO, you need to deeply think about whether your perception at all corresponds to reality, and what are your motivations for doing something?”

McGinnis suggests asking questions like:

  • Are you doing it because you really want to do it?
  • Am I following the crowd?
  • Can I actually do this?
  • Do I have the resources for this?
  • Do I have the talents for this?
  • Do I have the time for this?

“If you start asking yourself those questions immediately, many of the things that provoke your FOMO are proven to be things that you could never do in the first place,” McGinnis says.

The best way to cut through FOMO and FOBO is to research, ask basic, self-reflective questions, and consult trusted colleagues or loved ones (ideally a group of 3 to 5 people to create a tiebreaker) to put decisions into perspective.

McGinnis also suggests breaking down decisions into no-stakes, low-stakes, and high-stakes decisions. Then, devote minimal time on low-stakes or no-stakes decisions without long-term health or financial implications.

“What people forget when they're making these decisions is that all of your decisions are acceptable,” McGinnis says. “You are injecting the drama, and therefore you need to take yourself out of that decision-making process in the most extreme scenarios, because whatever you choose is fine. You just need to choose something.”

Other top tips for beating FOMO and FOBO

  1. Have an intentional relationship with your devices and give yourself a break. Pay attention to screen time, unfollow news or people who send you down a FOMO or FOBO cycle, or create a no-phone rule during meals or in the bedroom.
  2. Outsource no-stakes decisions: If you’re stuck deciding whether to go for a run or to the gym, or choosing what show to watch, flip a coin or let someone else choose. Spend the time you’d use overanalyzing the little things on something that matters more.
  3. Take a nap or get some sleep. Being adequately rested can prevent subconscious factors like hunger from influencing your decision making.
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