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Until very recently I believed that I needed to be on top of the latest news and happenings not only in my field (computer science and software engineering) but also in as many things as I can be on top of. This meant subscribing to all sorts of magazines, newsletters, YouTube channels, Twitch streamers, watching TV and live sport events, etc. — I was on top of a lot of the latest happenings, trends, news, interesting developments. I was having fun and I felt busy. What I did not feel was particularly effective nor productive. I felt like I was consuming so much information with the thought that it might be useful someday. When I was younger this wouldn’t have been an issue but I realised that ever since I’ve started taking stock of what I’ve been spending my time on, that a lot of it I’ve been spending just staying on top of things that I really didn’t need to be on top of. This article is about some of the realisations I’ve made in the course of exploring this issue of “FOMO” or the Fear of Missing Out and how I’ve changed my perspective over time to now having “JOMO” or the Joy of Missing Out.
Opportunistic photo of a rainbow at Coogee Beach, NSW.

One thing that I’ve realised and that a lot of literature about FOMO points out is that it usually stems from uncertainty — about whether the information or events going on will be relevant or important. This uncertainty causes a lot of insecurity for a lot of people (including me for the most part) and causes an irrational need to be in-the-know for things that might not necessarily be relevant information. It feeds a lot of the habits around news consumption and a lot of entertainment — craving the drama, the intrigue, the suspense, and sometimes the resolution of some of these cultural touch points. Lots of people have a fear of missing out on social interactions that would have happened if they were not out with their social group (or even alone) experiencing some popular event. I didn’t particularly feel the need to meet celebrities nor be in the crowd for a lot of concerts even while I was much younger, but I felt this for live sporting events.

I learned that for me, it was mostly self-imposed expectations. I don’t really have friends nor colleagues who shame me for not partaking in certain cultural events (I never got into Star Wars and I don’t ever see myself wanting to get into it) and those that do quickly find out that the ribbing and shaming don’t really work on me. However I will feel really bad if there was an olympic games or world swimming championships going on and I didn’t at least watch a live telecast (or highlights right after from some on-demand video service). I experienced this most recently with some of the professional DOTA 2 events which were live-streamed at times that were not convenient for viewing when based in Sydney (if you value sleep during those times). I see that I suffer a lot if I don’t prioritise the right things and in my journals I find that my lowest-performing days followed me binge-watching something on Netflix until too late at night (or the morning the following day) or I was watching some live-streamed DOTA 2 tournament.

I also found that following trends is a real time sink especially on social media. I’ve reduced my social media presence considerably over the past couple of years now (I’m now just on Twitter and LinkedIn) and even then I find myself getting sucked into the trending themes in my online social circles. I could easily spend minutes reading through flame threads and dumpster fire posts instead of doing something else I should have been doing. The tools on the iPhone have helped me realise how much time I’ve been spending on my phone (which is usually where I consume a lot of Twitter) and pointing out that I’ve been spending majority of my time on screen with the Twitter app.

Armed with this information from recent retrospectives for 2018 and just more recently with the past couple of months, I found that I needed to do something about the mindset and my perspective if I was going to have any chance at optimising the use of my time. Here’s how I did it for me:

Recognise that time is limited. This is Habit 2 in Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” which I still re-read regularly when I get the chance. It says to “begin with the end in mind” which puts things in perspective — we will all die at some point, and that I better decide whether I want to look back and feel like I wasted my life being on top of things that weren’t really important, or whether I will be proud that I did something useful with my time alive. This perspective of looking from the final destination back to the current time allows me to put things in perspective to ask myself and be honest about whether what I’m currently doing is really something I ought to be doing. This simple question of whether I’m doing something that’s working toward a goal that is important to my life’s mission is enough to break me out of a procrastination or FOMO trap.

Apply skills and efforts on more joyful activities. I found that it was not enough to stop doing things that aren’t contributing to your core missions in life, it meant also finding something to do where my skills and efforts will yield joy. Recently the “Kon Mari” method of tidying up became popular due to the Netflix hit about the ways of cleaning life up by only holding on to things that spark joy — this is not exactly the same, but it’s close enough to the thought process I went through. In my mind, time was worth the same and it wasn’t something that we will ever regain. When a moment passes, it’s gone and if I didn’t put it towards doing something that “sparked joy” I’d essentially been wasting time. This means for the minutes I’m walking, on the train, at the office, at home, with my kids, with my wife, on the plane, in bed, on the toilet seat, in the shower — I ask myself whether I’m working on generating as much joy as I can from the situation. If I’m just there getting sucked into someone else’s mission, then I’m not really using my time effectively especially if I don’t really share the mission. Now instead of having fear that I’m missing out on something, I have joy that I’m doing whatever I’m currently doing.

Leverage Ignorance. There’s a very zen-like attitude that some people take with dealing with email, when they declare “email bankruptcy” which I’ve since learned to adopt: if it’s really important, I will hear about it one way or another. There are cases where being ignorant about things that don’t really concern you will be exactly the right state to be in. I’ve found that there are certain happenings in the world which, if they’re really important I will hear about one way or another when I need to hear about it (and no earlier). I think about it with probabilities in mind — the probability that something happening and me having to know about it as soon as possible is vanishingly small given the amount of things that are constantly happening in the universe. If there was something that was really important that I need to know about is happening, chances are that this information will get to me eventually without me actively seeking this information. There’s a whole lot of information out there that’s not really relevant to what I’m trying to accomplish in life. Given my limited minutes, I’m better served not knowing about the vast majority of things, but instead only spending as much of my minutes doing things which allow me to accomplish my mission (including using some minutes to search the information that may be necessary).

Accept that we craft our experiences with our choices. I strongly believe that the way we experience life depends entirely on whether we choose to take our destiny in our own hands or whether we experience it as a bystander where things are happening to us. This shift from passive observer to active participant is important if you (like me) want to stop living in the constant fear of missing out. When we choose to do things instead of viewing things as happening to us, it changes the relationship we have with the world from someone that’s just there to someone making a difference. This usually does not come naturally, although this could be a personality trait which some people are more predisposed to (the jury is still out on whether nature prevails over nurture) but it’s certainly an attitude that can be consciously adopted. When “things that are happening” stop becoming things that happen to us, and start becoming things we choose to NOT experience, then the fear goes away and yields to reason. It is this framing that’s changed my way of looking at events that I chose to ignore or not be part of from being things that I miss.

Seize the day! If you optimistically think that you’re going to live until you’re 90, in my case that’s approximately 60+ years from now. That’s not a lot of time considering that there’s so many things I’d still like to be able to do. If you’re a pessimist and think that you’ll live only for another 20 years, then it’s imperative that you spend more time on things that matter to you rather than things that just happen to be happening. There’s always 24 hours in a day (give or take an hour because of Daylight Savings) and there’s only part of this that ought to really be “productive” (though sleep is arguably the most productive time for the brain for recovery). If you accept that 8 hours will be dedicated to sleep, and that the rest of the 16 hours is all you’re able to actually dedicate to the effort, what are you doing in those 16 hours? How much time are you spending with family? How much time are you dedicating to accomplishing your mission? How much time is dedicated to improvement? How about impacting your community? How about your legacy? Suddenly all those minutes watching a silly video or reading a random news story starts becoming a really expensive use of your time. Is it worth it?

Recently after implementing a few changes, I’ve noticed a number of quality of life improvements for me:

  • I stopped reading/listening to daily local news and do more long-form reading (in-depth reports, non-fiction books) and listening (audiobooks, deep intellectual discussions in podcasts).
  • I’ve reduced social media time from multiple hours a day, to several minutes a day. This is mostly on Twitter catching up while I’m otherwise unproductive anyway (say, while sitting “on the throne”).
  • I no longer get envious of people who have time to play the latest video games and instead use video games as a conscious mental reprieve, and limit my gaming specifically to decompress.
  • I watch much less TV now and when I do its usually with family. We’re discovering the joys of just watching movies together at home.
  • I play D&D more with real-life interactions! I’ve found that these regular interactions with my gaming group refuels my soul and provides a very refreshing escape for the mind.
  • I now swim more sparingly, stressing less and going more by feel. Being able to spend more time with the kids instead of being obsessed by hitting weekly mileage on the swims is making my quality of life much better. I also now get to enjoy swimming more for the experience rather than as a training exercise which completely changes the way I experience it now.

I’m sure everyone will have a different set of trade-offs than I’ve made. Maybe you value serendipitous interactions more than structured and planned days. Maybe you enjoy the variety more than working on the next immediate goal. Or maybe you’re less discerning about what you want to accomplish in life and would be fine with going along with the flow. It’s all good and it’s important to remember that there’s no one right way to life your life, but that it is important to remember that we do all just have one life to live.

Do you struggle with FOMO? Have you made the switch to embracing the JOMO too? I’d love to hear your strategies and thoughts too.


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