FOMO–the fear of missing out–makes you feel bad and hinders your ability to focus on important goals. It’s that negative feeling you get when learning your colleagues enjoyed happy hour while you were working late, or that nagging anxiety you feel when choosing a date with your spouse over attending a networking event.
So how can you decrease your FOMO, to feel better and be more focussed on what’s important? In this post we’ll walk you through a 3-step solution for understanding FOMO and how to address it.
As always, our PhDs have reviewed over 30 research articles from cognitive psychology, social psychology, and behavioral economics to ensure our tips are backed by science.
The cognitive process behind fear of missing out (FOMO)
The general idea is that your brain continually evaluates whether your current situation matches how you would like the situation to be–that is, your goals. When they don’t match, you feel uncomfortable and have a tendency to behave in a way that moves you closer to your goals.
Usually the cybernetic process is useful and helps you achieve your goals. For example, imagine that goal is to finish an important financial statement by Friday, but it is Thursday afternoon and you estimate that you have many hours of work before finishing. According to the model, you would recognize your goal and situation don’t match, which would make you uncomfortable–you might get anxious, frustrated, disappointed, etc. This discomfort would in turn spur you to change your behavior–perhaps you recruit help, minimize distractions, or just prepare for a late night–in order to make you more likely to reach your goal of finishing by Friday.
But with the fear of missing out, the inputs into Goal and Situation can get out of whack. Specifically,
- Your goals changes. Instead of focusing on your important personal long-term goals you begin to value external goals that are usually less important.
- Your evaluation of your current situation becomes less accurate. You overestimate how good the other experience is and devalue your current experience.
- You compare the wrong goal to the inaccurate assessment of your current situation and it seems they don’t match. So you feel the nagging stress and doubt of FOMO and have the impulse to want to do whatever others are doing, even at the expense of your important goals.
We will thus address how to better solidify your goals and how to make better comparisons. We will briefly also address what behaviors can help when, despite your best efforts, FOMO hits. Specifically we’ll discuss three steps:
- Step 1: Getting the goal right,
- Step 2: Getting the evaluation of your current situation right, and
- Step 3: Getting the behavior right.
Step 1: Get the goal right
The first step to tackling the fear of missing according to the cybernetic process model is identifying the right goals.
Specifically, we aim to ensure you
- Establish clear personal goals in advance,
- Avoid being tempted by external goals, and
- Beware of looking to others for your goals.
Establish clear personal goals in advance
Imagine you see a group of strangers working together to pick smelly trash off the ground on a hot afternoon. But you are unable to join because you weren’t invited and you have to work on an urgent project anyway.
Would you experience FOMO? Our guess is no.
This ridiculous example shows us that missing out on others’ experiences does not necessarily cause FOMO. Instead you must value that missed experience; it must be relevant to an important personal goal of yours.
You are most likely to want to pursue and achieve goals when they
- align with your underlying interests and values and
- help fulfill your basic psychological needs of:
- autonomy (feeling authentic and that you have choice)
- competence (feeling like you have control over outcomes), and
relatedness (feeling connected to other people).
Often, however, people fail to fully consider what their personal goals are and why they have them. So take a moment to take a step back and consider your goals in the grand scheme of your interests, values, and basic needs. Here is a simple process:
- Identify the life domains that are important to you. Common examples include work/school, family, friends, leisure, personal growth, and health.
- Note why each domain is important to you. Does it align with your interests or values? Which ones? Does it help you feel autonomous, competent, or related to other people? When and how?
- Jot down your existing goals for each domain. Do these goals align with your interests, values, or psychological needs? Or do they help you achieve success within the domain?
- Consider why you are pursuing any goals that do not align. Is there an external reason such as wanting money or impressing others, or a negative internal reason such as guilt or anxiety?
- Revise your goals or develop new ones to ensure your goals are important for each domain.
- Rank your top 5 goals across all domains.
Once you’ve defined and ranked your goals, return to them when evaluating which decisions to make. And once you’ve made your decision, be confident knowing it was a good one for you.
Avoid being tempted by external temptations and goals
Even when your personal goals are clear, it is hard to ignore others when modern technology (or old-fashioned loud office chatter) is constantly bombarding us with distracting info. So how can you limit exposure to FOMO-inducing distractions in the first place?
Take a moment to think about when you are particularly vulnerable to FOMO. Is it Thursday afternoons when your colleagues leave work early for happy hour, when your neighbors constantly go on about their amazing weekend trips, or every time you check Instagram?
Now think about how you could avoid these situations. Consider how to…
- Change your environment. Perhaps you could work at a coffee shop Thursday afternoons to avoid being tempted by coworkers, or use a website blocker to disable Instagram during work hours.
- Prepare if-then action plans. Sometimes called “implementation intentions,” these are simple plans for how you will respond when certain situations arise, and they have been shown to be very effective at increasing goal attainment. For example, you may decide in advance that “if my colleagues begin discussing after-work plans, then I will put on my headphones and listen to my favorite music.”
Beware of looking to others for goals
Even when your personal goals are clearly defined, you may still find yourself thinking about what others have. This is a product of what psychologists call “social learning.”
Humans likely evolved to look to others for information about what goals are good and important because it is hard to collect such information from scratch. And others sometimes do provide useful information–about where is a safe place to live, who is friendly, what jobs are good, and so on. We are particularly likely to copy others who are successful or high-prestige.
But, of course, others’ goals do not necessarily match your interests, values, and psychological needs.
So next time you find yourself wondering if you should copy your buddies and leave early for happy hour, ask yourself:
- Why do I want to do that other thing?
- Does it really align with my values and ranked goals, or am I being steered off path by the bias of looking to others?
Step 2: Get the evaluation of your current situation right
The next step in the cybernetic process model is comparing your goals to your current situation. To tackle the fear of missing out, we will thus now discuss how to get your evaluation of the current situation right.
Specifically, we aim to ensure you
- Don’t overvalue others’ experiences and
- Don’t undervalue your own.
Don’t overvalue the others’ experiences.
Beware of overly positive signalling. Signalling–a phenomenon in economics, evolutionary biology, and psychology–refers to how people indicate value to others. For example, people might include degrees on their resumes to signal intelligence, or wear expensive clothes to signal wealth.
Not surprisingly, people often are incentivized to send out overly positive signals, highlighting only their good and covering up the less impressive. Instagram posts rarely include pictures of long lines, mediocre conversations, and fatigue.
Beware of overly positive views from afar. Moreover, when thinking about an experience from afar, people often focus on the positive aspects and downplay any negative aspects. For example, when thinking about childhood memories people are likely to remember things like the excitement of opening Christmas gifts or the joy of summers spent swimming in the local lake, rather than the general banality of fourth grade spelling lessons.
When actually living something, however, people experience all sorts of mundane and even negative aspects. This same tendency to ignore the negative applies when thinking about others’ experiences.
So next time your pining over a missed event and feeling the pang of FOMO,
- Consider whether this is an overly positive representation. How might signalling be at play?
- Ask what negative aspects you might be failing to consider.
- Bring yourself down to a more concrete experience of the goal. Imagine the step-by-step process of attending the missed experience, including all the boring, frustrating, or otherwise negative parts.
Don’t undervalue your own experiences and goals.
Above we discussed how people often have overly positive evaluations of others’ experiences, and the converse is also true: people often fail to fully value their own present experiences and long-term goals. The fear of missing out wreaks havoc when it saps your ability to enjoy your current experience and goal pursuit.
Notice the positive. So next time you feel FOMO hit, consider taking a moment to focus on your current situation and notice its positive aspects. You could:
- Look for as many happy faces as you can find during your commute to work.
- Actively savor your current situation. Whether you are at a desk, the grocery store, or your couch, take a deep breath and quietly notice everything this place has to offer–its smells, the feeling of the warmth or chill, any beautiful colors or interesting sounds. Spend a few minutes just taking in these positive things you might normally miss.
Beware of delay discounting. Delay discounting describes the tendency to undervalue future rewards, often irrationally so. For example, many people would prefer $100 today over $125 next month.
Delay discounting can hinder your ability to properly evaluate your goals–making you value the immediate (but less valuable) experiences that make you feel FOMO over your long-term more important goals. Check out this post for more background. To help combat delay discounting and more properly value your long-term, important goals, consider
- Episodic future thinking, that is, essentially daydreaming about yourself in the future. Ideally, your imagined future experiences should be related to your goal, positive, realistic, and vivid.
Enjoying nature. Walk in the park or examine the little flowers outside your favorite deli. Even just looking at pictures of nature has been shown to decrease delay discounting.
Step 3. Get the Behavior Right
Finally, the tough truth is that there will be times when you really do miss out on valuable experiences. Going back to the cybernetic process model, this is when your current experience truly doesn’t match your goals. This in turn causes FOMO anxiety and spurs you to change your behavior.
But what behavior is helpful? To help you get the behavior right, we’ll discuss tips on how to:
- Assess whether your emotion is telling you to change your behavior,
- Create your own experiences, and
- Tackle unhelpful emotions.
Assess whether your emotion is telling you to change your behavior. Emotion often gets a bad reputation for “taking over” judgment or causing irrational behavior. But instead of viewing the emotion of FOMO as always bad, consider how you might use it to better your situation.
Indeed, emotions can serve as important pieces of information that guide us in helpful ways. Negative emotions like FOMO inform us that something in our environment is “off.” FOMO thus indicates it may be time to “stop and think” about what is happening and act accordingly. Fear, for example, ensured our ancestors stayed away from poisonous snakes. And loneliness ensured our ancestors pursued social relationships that made it more likely they would survive in the Savannah.
Of course, this does not mean our emotions are always helpful–what worked for our ancestors and got hardwired into our systems might not always fit today. Just because you have FOMO seeing pictures of your neighbor partying with his family on his new yacht does not mean you should commandeer the boat and steal his wife. Luckily, you are probably smart enough to know that.
So next time you feel the fear of missing out, don’t just wallow in your feelings. Instead, actively address them. Determine whether they are telling you something important that you can act on, or whether you just need to cope with them. Specifically,
- Identify what specific emotion(s) is involved in your FOMO. Disappointment, anxiety, envy, fear, something else?
- Evaluate whether that emotion is telling you something helpful. Is there an actual mismatch between your current situation and your goals?
- Consider whether you could change your behavior to better align your situation with your goals.
- Accept that sometimes your emotion may not be helpful at this time.
Create your own experiences. If you’ve determined your FOMO is telling you to realign your behavior and your goals, then what?
Remember that our goals are most important to us when they are relevant to an underlying interest, value, or basic psychological need. So take a moment to ask which of these is relevant. For example, in the example of feeling FOMO after learning your colleagues enjoyed happy hour without you, would you be upset because you…
- love craft beer (interest),
- think it will hurt your ability to get promoted (work-related goals and values),
- missed the social connection (relatedness),or
- something else?
Identifying the underlying reason can help you recreate new experiences to fulfill those underlying interest, values, or needs. Sometimes this is simple. If you just wanted to try craft beer, then schedule another time soon to take a trip to a brewery. If your concerns are work-related, use it as motivation to work hard while your colleagues aren’t.
Most of the time, though, FOMO involves missing social connection and relatedness. And re-creating social experiences can be tougher than buying a 6-pack. Especially as an adult, it is hard to make friends, and a significant portion of adults struggle with feelings of loneliness.
But that doesn’t mean you are destined to a life of missing out. To create your own social experiences to tackle FOMO, you could:
- Schedule your own experiences in advance. This could be something as simple as inviting your work colleagues to another happy hour next week when you are available. If it feels forced, you could use a holiday (Valentine’s Day drinks for all the single folks!) or other event (Olympics watch party) as an impetus.
- Join a group or class of people who enjoy the same experiences you do. Perhaps a beer tasting club, salsa lessons, or an alumni group. Such groups are great because participants share an interest and they often meet on a regular basis–things that make it more likely that close, long-term social connections will occur.
Capitalize on the “propinquity effect”–just be around others. Simply physically being near others makes it more likely you will have social interactions and develop personal relationships with them. So attend get-togethers even if you are too nervous to talk with anyone. And consider your office next to the bathroom (that everyone frequents) to be a blessing in disguise.
Tackle unhelpful emotions. If ultimately you can’t change your situation, or your behavioral changes will take time, do not fret: you are not stuck forever with your negative emotions. Instead, when that FOMO feeling hits, consider these science-backed methods to decrease stress and boost your mood:
- Exercise. An ever-growing body of evidence finds that exercise can substantially decrease anxiety and stress, possibly even more than psychotherapy or medicines.
- Spend some time outside in nature.
- Seek small social interactions. This can mean spending time with close friends and family, or simply having a brief chat with a stranger on the bus.
- Volunteer at a charity. Volunteer work is often social, and has been shown to increase your sense of competence and well-being.
Practice gratitude. Practicing gratitude–whether it’s thinking about a time when someone was kind to you, writing down three things you are thankful for every morning, or writing a letter to someone you are grateful for–has been shown to decrease negative emotion and increase positive emotion.
Recap of a science-backed 3-step solution to overcome the Fear of Missing Out
The cybernetic process model provides guidance for how to tackle the Fear of Missing Out at multiple stages–when setting your goal, evaluating your situation, and changing your behavior.
Specifically, the tackle FOMO,
- Get your goal right. Establish clear personal goals–based on your underlying interests, values, and basic psychological needs–in advance. Then plan how to avoid being tempted by external goals or misguided by others’ goals.
- Get the evaluation of your current situation right. Avoid overvaluing others’ experiences by recognizing overly positive signalling and views from afar. Avoid undervaluing your own experience by seeking out the positive and tackling delay discounting of your important goals.
- Get the behavior right. Assess what, if anything your emotion is telling you. If it signals a need to change your behavior, create your own experiences. If you simply need to manage your negative emotions, actively address them with activities like exercise or spending time in nature.