How to Make Peace With Your F.O.B.O: Fear of Better Options
June 28, 2018
Ever go to make a simple decision, only to find yourself overwhelmed by the options at hand? For example: That moment when the waiter asks, “And what would you like?” Cue the internal debate: What if the homemade pasta isn’t as good as the avocado salad? What if there’s a special I’m overlooking? Or, what if I order the pasta—and the garlic is too heavy or I slip into a carb coma for the rest of the night? Or, wait, there’s a back to this menu? What about this Pinterest-worthy vegetable dish?
Meet F.O.B.O., or Fear of Better Options. As defined in the New York Times earlier this month, F.O.B.O., also called “maximization,” is “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.”
I’ve experienced F.O.B.O. when making career moves, making plans with friends, and even when scheduling trips. At the start of the spring, my boyfriend and I made a list of the places we wanted to go as the weather warmed up—hiking in the Catskills, a weekend jaunt to Philadelphia, a drive out to the coast before tourist season. We had options. So many options, in fact, that when it came time to pick a weekend trip each Friday, we usually just threw up our hands and ordered takeout—but not after agonizing over what we wanted to eat. As of last week, we’ve traveled to a grand total of zero new places.
You’ve likely experienced F.O.B.O. when deciding which career path to take or where to go to college or make a big move. But F.O.B.O. can sneak into smaller decisions, too. Ever scroll through Netflix for an hour looking for the best TV show to binge, or head out shopping and return empty-handed because nothing seemed like the perfect use of your hard-earned money?
F.O.B.O. can be paralyzing, and, paradoxically, can lead exactly to the outcomes a F.O.B.O.-er fears most: no decision at all, meaning all the best options are left on the table.
Of course, switching off F.O.B.O. is easier said than done. Some are more prone to F.O.B.O. than others. One theory, argued by Herbert Simon in 1957, separates people into two groups: those who are maximizers and those who are satisficers.
Maximizers weigh lots of external factors when making a decision, striving to find the best choice. But once they’ve decided, they often second-guess themselves and are less likely to feel happy with their choice.
Satisficers, on the other hand, are more likely to settle for an option that feels good, more likely to ask whether the decision has met their needs (regardless of if it’s “the best”), and less likely to regret said decision.
There are pros and cons to being both a maximizer and a satisficer, but it’s safe to say that a constant state of F.O.B.O. is no good. Here, how to break from the F.O.B.O. spiral.
1. Recognize When You’re Slipping Into F.O.B.O. Territory
Sounds basic, but how many times have you looked up from the takeout menu or your email inbox, only to realize you’ve spent 45 minutes making a decision?
Try to identify when you slip into a fear-based mentality. Do you tend to clench your jaw or ball up your hands? Are there certain triggers (ex. a time limit) that cause panic? Notice what brings on your F.O.B.O., then press pause when it happens.
Think about what might happen if you were to just go with your first instinct. What’s the worst possible outcome of the wrong decision? And ask yourself: Would it really be so bad?
2. Get Comfortable with Mostly Fine Decisions
If you won’t stop until you’ve found the best possible option, try landing on a Mostly Fine Decision, or M.F.D., instead. “Your M.F.D. is the minimum outcome you’re willing to accept for a decision,” Smarter Living editor Tim Herrera explains in the Times. “It’s the outcome you’d be fine with, even if it’s not the absolute best possibility.”
Think about the last time you ordered takeout, for example—did you stress about what you wanted to eat? Herrera can relate. How he learned to embrace a “fine” option:
“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,” he writes. “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.”
Try it for yourself the next time you pick a show to watch. Your criteria might be: makes me laugh, pokes fun at today’s culture, has at least one cute British accent. What you land on—your M.F.D.—is likely more satisfying than an endless scroll-screen of options.
3. Practice on Things That Don’t Carry Much Weight
Think of decision-making as a muscle: The more you flex it, the stronger it gets. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by huge, life-changing decisions, so start small.
The next time you go to grab a morning snack, or an afternoon La Croix, go with your gut. Reach for whatever you think of first—no wavering.
If you’re happy with your choice, more power to you. If not, absorb what the negative outcome feels like. Are you devastated? Did the choice of goldfish over a cookie ruin your day? Most likely not. You may find that your fears were unwarranted, or that making the “wrong” choice wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be.
Practice on the small stuff, then try to use those same techniques on bigger decisions.
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