How to cope with FOBO: the fear of better options

While on holiday recently, I found myself moving from one accommodation to another, trying to find the perfect place. Indecision is a big problem for me, and my location-swapping made me realise just how much impact it was having on my life. Instead of unwinding, I was looking for the “best” spot.

It seems I suffer from FOBO, the fear of better options. US venture capitalist and author Patrick McGinnis, who coined FOBO and FOMO (fear of missing out) in 2003 as a student at Harvard Business School, describes this loop of indecision as part of our programming.

Unlike FOMO, which can teach us about what we really want in life, fear of better options offers little benefit. Credit:Getty Images

“We have this tendency to keep stretching out the decision-making process, because as human beings we are hard wired to optimise,” says McGinnis. “We have always looked to get the best things we can as a sort of survival of the fittest.”

This tendency towards optimising isn’t the problem, he explains, but rather the process that we go through.

“Thanks to technology we have more access to comparison, more access to choice and more access to customisation. We now see what we could have, how we might get it, and what others have that we might want – and the more we see these facets, the more we become stifled by choice; looking over and returning to the same options again and again.”

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Unlike FOMO, which can teach us about what we really want in life, fear of better options offers little benefit. As McGinnis notes, it’s an affliction of abundance – you have to have choices to have FOBO. The fact that I was caught in a loop of indecision while on holiday is a case in point.

While it may feel as though a bit of indecision never hurt anyone, it can affect our ability to move forward in life, with the tyranny of choice keeping us stuck. We can also find ourselves lusting after options that may not be within our reality, making it all the more vital to recognise our FOBO and how it is leading us astray. Here’s how.

Recognise you’re caught

Noting when you are spending a lot of time worrying about inconsequential things is the first step to counteracting FOBO, says McGinnis. “When you are spending too much time worrying over what you’re having for lunch, you are robbing yourself of the energy to focus on the things that matter.”

Decision-making is like flexing a muscle, he adds. “If you learn how to do it for the small stuff, it will help you with the big things.”

Ask the clock

For inconsequential decisions that will soon be forgotten, McGinnis suggests turning them into a straight choice between yes and no and then asking the clock: if the time falls on an odd number then it’s a yes, if it’s even, it’s a no. “It’s a way of externalising and letting the universe decide something that isn’t important,” he says. “I never go back on that once I’ve decided.”

Develop your own process

For more important matters, McGinnis thinks gut instinct might be overrated. “When you have 30-odd options, trusting your gut is not practical. What you need to do is the research, have a process, invest time exploring your options and eliminate as many things as you can. The most toxic part of decision-making is going over the same options time and time again.”

Choose to dive into life

We can do our best to eliminate FOBO, but in the end we have much less control over the outcome of our decisions than we might like to think.

“You want to have the best of all possible worlds, but anybody who’s lived a couple of years realises you can never predict what’s going to happen,” says McGinnis. “You make the best decision you can, then you recognise that the future will tell its own story.”

In the face of uncertainty, as a wise person once told me: “When you get the choice between diving more into life or sitting back, dive.”

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale February 24.

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