Don’t let FOBO paralyse you

Leadership  Productivity
14 January, 2019

Is FOBO paralysing your ability to make decisions? Get unstuck with these 5 strategies.

Have you ever been to a restaurant and seen someone at the neighbouring table (or it could even be you) examine the menu in exhausting detail, with the waiter patiently waiting to take the order? “There are so many great dishes, I don’t know which one to choose”, you hear the person exclaim.” What if I choose the wrong dish?”. Meanwhile, the poor waiter is of course hoping that the diner would make up their mind.

You are probably familiar with FOMO, or “Fear of Missing Out”. If you feel compelled to go out every weekend or experience unease when you see friends doing exciting things without you on social media, that’s a result of this pesky anxiety.

What you might be less familiar with is: FOBO, or “Fear of Better Options”. Both FOMO and FOBO are concepts developed by Patrick McGinnis, author of The 10% Entrepreneur.

This week, my message focuses on the ways in which FOBO holds you back from making timely decisions – and what you can do to snap out of this paralysing mindset.

Holding out or striving for the optimal solution can sometimes be a smart strategy.

However, FOBO turns into a problem when it becomes your default way of thinking.

The conviction that there’s always something better out there paralyses you into inaction.

For every decision, minor or major, you exhaustively analyse all the possible options and information, intent on achieving the best outcome. You refuse to commit or act, because the perfect alternative might come along any minute.

As a result of your indecision, precious time gets wasted, crucial decisions are delayed, and new opportunities pass you by. Or, you make a choice under pressure, but keep second-guessing yourself and remain stressed about it.

Not only does FOBO hinder you at work but also in your personal life. It can hold you back from committing to relationships (because you think you might find someone better), trying something new (because you keep researching it endlessly instead of simply starting), or turning your dream into reality (because every aspect of it needs to be 100% perfect).

Too many choices

In How to Make Tough Decisions Easier, Tim Herrera sums up the concept of FOBO:

Researchers call this phenomenon maximization. It’s the relentless researching of all possible options for fear that you’ll miss out on the “best” one, leading to indecision, regret and even lower levels of happiness.

Have you ever been in a supermarket with so many different varieties of a product that you simply gave up and thought “forget it, I’ll pick it up next time”? The same confusion holds true at the workplace. If you’re making a marketing-related decision, you have to assess more options today than ever before. If you’re coming up with a financial strategy, there’s a dizzying amount of data out there (and endless ways to interpret it).

The fact is that it’s impossible for us to fully examine every single alternative out there. In the real world, we don’t have access to “complete information” while making choices – so, we have to learn to make do with incomplete, imperfect information.

Born from privilege

Only those with lots of options face this struggle – and only those with affluence or authority have lots of options. In other words, FOBO arises from privilege, and its influence extends beyond the individual. As a leader, your unwillingness to take important decisions doesn’t affect just you; it also impacts your team, peers, and organisation. In an interview with the New York Times, McGinnis elaborates:

F.O.B.O. is a byproduct of a hyper-busy, hyper-connected world in which everything seems possible, and, as a result, you are spoiled for choice. It’s also driven by narcissism. People with F.O.B.O. put themselves and their needs and wants squarely around the people around them – all of the people who are adversely affected by their F.O.B.O.

Here are five suggestions to break out of the FOBO mindset:

1. Identify your FOBO triggers

Most of us analyse certain things more obsessively than others – be it the font of a document, what to watch on Netflix, or what to make for dinner. Pay attention to your personal FOBO traps, the ones that take up an inordinate amount of time and exhaust you. Have you been scrolling through Netflix for an hour, trying to pick a movie? Have you been debating where to eat out tonight for the last half hour?

Try to be aware of when you’re slipping into a FOBO spiral, so you can shake yourself out of it. Ask yourself: Even if I make the “wrong” decision, what’s the worst that could happen? And is it really that terrible?

2. Ask the watch

In his interview, McGinnis suggests a handy way to approach everyday choices that drain your mental energy for no good reason. Without thinking too much, narrow your options down to two. Assign one item to the right side of your watch (or clock), the other to the left. Then, look down and see where the second hand is at – that’s your decision! McGinnis says this method works beautifully when FOBO delays you from making minor decisions, like which format to use for a presentation, what to wear for a meeting, or where to go for lunch.

3. Learn to be “satisficed”

While it’s definitely logical to aim for the best possible outcome, maximisation has its limits. In the 1950s, behavioural economist Herbert Simon divided decision-makers into two broad categories – the maximisers and the satisficers. In their search for the optimal solution, maximisers weigh numerous external factors and agonise over different options – yet, they still end up being unhappy about their decision. Satisficers, on the other hand, make quicker decisions, aiming for a good enough solution that meets most of their needs. They’re also less likely to regret their choices later.

In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz recommends the following process to make a decision based on satisficing (instead of maximising):

Most good decisions will involve these steps: Figure out your goal or goals. Evaluate the importance of each goal. Array the options. Evaluate how likely each of the options is to meet your goals. Pick the winning option. Later use the consequences of your choice to modify your goals, the importance you assign them, and the way you evaluate future possibilities.

4. Define your MFD

To cut short the endless analysis, it can be helpful to define what your Mostly Fine Decision (MFD) looks like. In the above-mentioned article, Herrera (who coined the term) describes MFDs as a healthy balance between maximising and satisficing:

Your M.F.D. is the minimum outcome you’re willing to accept for a decision. It’s the outcome you’d be fine with, even if it’s not the absolute best possibility.

So let’s say you’re me, sitting at home and 20 minutes into mindlessly scrolling through Seamless*. To break the cycle and find my M.F.D. so I can actually make an order, I need to think about what my criteria are for a decision I’d be fine with: not hungry anymore, didn’t spend too much money, ate something I didn’t hate.

With those criteria in mind, I now have a specific threshold I know I need to hit. Once I’ve found an option that ticks off all those boxes, I’ve landed on my M.F.D.

* a food delivery app

5. Stop looking for guarantees

At the core of FOBO lies the craving for guaranteed perfection. So, to tackle this anxiety effectively, you must get comfortable with the risks of making decisions with the best-available information at a given time. If you wait for complete data and total control over the situation, you’ll be waiting forever!

Be it a business strategy or a meal, get over the idea of perfection to become a faster, more efficient decision-maker. Yes, there may be unforeseen setbacks. But that’s an acceptable cost for taking action before it’s too late. As McGinnis puts it:

We must accept that decisions come with downsides, trade-offs, and the risk of failure. Otherwise, we are too slow to react.

Have you tried any other strategies to overcome FOBO in your life? If yes, do share your learnings. I look forward to your thoughts.


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