Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | How an investor and a former US president helped me fight fobo this year

Investor and podcast host Patrick McGinnis wrote a column for Harbus, the student newspaper of Harvard Business School, 15 years ago, where he identified two potent forces guiding decision making for the entire student body: fear of missing out (FOMO) and fear of a better option (FOBO).

I came across the column early this year and it helped me understand my own FOBO. In fact, the subsequent research on the topic helped me train myself to negotiate better with FOBO.

FOBO, also referred to as maximization, is the relentless pursuit of all possible options for fear that we will miss out on the “best" outcome. This wild goose chase leads to indecision, fatigue, stress and regret.

FOBO is a by-product of our hyper-busy, hyper-connected world filled with possibilities we can’t ignore. Most of life is about freedom to choose but left unchecked, choices can make us prisoners of our own mind. British historian Bill Schwarz’s research shows that up till a certain point, happiness increases with the number of choices and then plummets with vigorous pace.

As my work grew, I realized that FOBO was weighing me down. By trying to maximize every outcome, I became indecisive and took several suboptimal decisions. It adversely affected my motivation and pushed me to solve problems that didn’t exist. I got so busy trying to solve inconsequential problems that I didn’t have the bandwidth to attend to issues critical for my most important stakeholders.

The fear of doing anything

In his writing, McGinnis explains that when we have FOBO, and particularly when we combine it with FOMO, our decision-making paralysis turns into FODA (fear of doing anything).

Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of the US, famously said that the most urgent decisions are rarely the most important ones. The Eisenhower Matrix has four components, which we can use to grapple with the spectre of FOBO:

Important, but not urgent: We can decide when to do such tasks. I often put such activities on my calendar and try to finish them off in one sitting.

Urgent and important: These are the tasks that require both focus and creativity. They also need to be attended to immediately. That is why I prioritize them over everything else.

Urgent but not important: These should be delegated to someone else. The cost of wasting your time on such tasks is far more than the cost of outsourcing it. I do such tasks usually on my way back from work as I deal with Delhi’s road traffic.

Not important and not urgent: These things should be postponed without guilt. I have learnt to ignore such tasks.

The Eisenhower matrix made me realize that it is impossible to manage time. Considering all tasks as equally important and spreading them through the day is a sure-shot recipe for disaster. Instead we need to focus on managing our energy and attention on high-stake decisions. Seems intuitive, right? Then why don’t more people follow it?

These days, everyone is burnt out. We are talking about work-life balance without getting to the core of the issue, and we are exhausting ourselves by taking inconsequential decisions that seem urgent.

FOBO, FOMO and FODA together make for a deadly combination, one that can only be mitigated by ruthless prioritization.

For me, 2019 was about ignoring the urgent and focusing on the stuff that moved the needle. It required deliberate practice, patience and rigorous commitment. Many times, I was tempted by the charms of FOBO, but I resisted and stuck it out. By spending almost no time on low-stake, urgent decisions, I carved out more time for my family and myself. This year taught me the art of being productive without being busy.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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