The Affliction of Abundance

You’re about to launch a new product, but you can’t decide on the tech stack. You’ve been researching for weeks, worried that you might miss out on the perfect solution. Sounds familiar? This is FOBO – the Fear of a Better Option. It’s the lesser-known cousin of FOMO, and it might be secretly sabotaging your decision-making process.

As psychologist Barry Schwartz puts it: “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.” It’s a bit like standing in front of a buffet with endless choices, but standing here starving because you can’t bring yourself to settle on an option.

The Fear of a Better Option

FOMO, or fear of missing out, is a term that has become common in everyday language and has permeated most corners of our popular culture. But the author who coined the term FOMO, Patrick McGinnis, recently warned people about another fear they may experience at some point in their lives: FOBO, or the fear of a better option. It’s the nagging question that prevents you from making a choice: “What if there’s something better out there?”

Maximizers are particularly prone to FOBO. While satisficers simply try to find a solution that is good enough, maximizers try to make an optimal decision. This means considering all the possible options for fear that they will miss out on the best one, and often leads to indecision, stress, and frustration.

And because FOBO doesn’t disappear after the decision was taken, it also frequently leads to regret. Was this really the best option? Did I really consider all the potential alternatives?

Patrick McGinnis explains: “FOBO is nothing new. People have long agonized over major life choices, like getting married, taking a job, or buying a house, in hopes of finding a slightly better or radically better option. Today, when we have so many options, we don’t just try to optimize who we marry, or where we work or live – we try to optimize nearly every aspect of our lives and we spend inordinate time and energy in the process.”

The problem is that the assumption of complete information—a situation in which knowledge about all payoffs and strategies is available to all participants—is unrealistic. Since we won’t be able to have all the necessary information to make the “best” decision, it’s often better to pick the one that seems to be the most sensible at the time, even if it means accepting some trade-offs. That’s what satisficers tend to do more easily.

Signs You are Suffering from FOBO

Even though FOBO is not a clinical disorder but simply a limiting bias towards maximizing each decision, there are a few signs you can look for.

  • Excessive research leading to procrastination. Do you spend lots of time researching all potential options before making a decision? Please note that it doesn’t mean researching is bad. It’s good to do your research before making a choice or a purchase. But you’re entering FOBO territory when you end up making the decision much later than you had planned, or start feeling stressed about the process because you know you should be allocating your efforts to something else, for example building the product or talking to potential customers.
  • Frequent regrets about past decisions. If you often look back and think that maybe you should have chosen a different solution or a different path, you may be experiencing FOBO. Satisficers will just move on and optimize for the present and the future, while maximisers tend to dwell more on the past and continue to imagine potential scenarios well after the decision was made.
  • Secret goals versus open experimentation. Announcing your goals is a great way to commit to them. It’s also a great way to set your mind on a specific option. People experiencing FOBO may stop themselves from publicly sharing their goals to avoid being forced into what may feel like a premature decision, and to keep their options open. While satisfacers tend to have more of an experimental mindset, going for a suboptimal solution just to “give it a go” and “see how it turns out”, and will be happy to share their experience doing so, maximisers will want to ensure their choice will result in the expected outcome before making the decision for fear of failing and feeling ashamed.

Overall, the surest sign that you’re suffering from FOBO is when you keep stretching out the decision-making process, trying to overly optimize your choice instead of going for a satisfactory option.

How to cope with FOBO

The more important the decision, the harder it is to deal with FOBO. That’s why it’s better to start working on your fear of a better option with small, comparatively less stressful decisions.

  1. Recognise the signs. Noting when you are spending a lot of time worrying about inconsequential things is the first step to managing FOBO. For example, if you’re spending too much time deciding what you should have for lunch or what to wear today, you’re using some precious mental energy that would probably be better used elsewhere. Just start being more aware of these moments of unreasonable research and option comparison.
  2. Ask the universe. Seriously. Turn small, inconsequential decisions into a straight “yes” or “no” and then look at the time. If it’s an odd number, it’s yes. If even, no. “It’s a way of externalizing and letting the universe decide something that isn’t important,” says McGinnis.
  3. Use a decision framework. For bigger decisions, having a process in place is a powerful way to help you navigate different options and ultimately make a reasonable choice, without spending too much time dealing with FOBO. I personally like the DECIDE framework—define the problem, establish the criteria, consider the alternatives (but not for too long!), identify the choice, develop a plan of action, and evaluate the solution.

While it’s perfectly normal to experience analysis paralysis when on the verge of making an important decision, whether personal or professional, in most cases FOBO is about choices that won’t have a huge impact. And, more often than not, not making a decision at all is worse than choosing one of the suboptimal alternatives.

In the words of Patrick McGinnis: “You can never predict what’s going to happen. You make the best decision you can, then you recognise that the future will tell its own story.”

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