When you suffer from fear of missing out, you are never in the “now.” Your mind is always somewhere else, anticipating something that hasn’t happened yet.
It’s a miserable way to live. Fortunately, there are things you can do to overcome FOMO and be present again.
Learn about the telltale signs of FOMO, why some people are more susceptible to it than others, and the connection between FOMO and social media.
What Is FOMO?
Fear of missing out (FOMO) refers to a negative feeling of “not being in the know” or being left out. A few examples:
- You are afraid of missing an “important” piece of information on social media, like who just broke up with whom.
- You are afraid of missing out on a “hot” event in your town, like a concert or a business conference.
- You are afraid of not being invited to a “hip” social gathering, like a house party or a day trip on a yacht.
- You are afraid of not taking advantage of a “great” business opportunity, like investing in a certain stock or crypto.
- You are afraid of being left behind when it comes to a “revolutionary” technology, like AI or the metaverse.
The person suffering from FOMO will compulsively check their social media, the news, or other channels of communication, to avoid potential losses (or what they imagine to be losses).
As a result, the attention of FOMOists is always divided. They might be physically in one place. But in their mind, they are already contemplating the next thing to do or the next event to attend. They are neither “here” nor “there,” but always caught up in an in-between state.
At the core of FOMO is a lack of direction. FOMOists haven’t found themselves yet. That is why they must constantly run after every trend. They need others — influencers, the zeitgeist — to tell them what is valuable, because they have no framework for determining value themselves.
A Brief History of FOMO
FOMO as a phenomenon was first described by Dr. Dan Herman, in his 2000 academic paper, “Introducing Short-term Brands: A New Branding Tool for a New Consumer Reality.” In regards to a recent brand crisis, he elaborates on a new type of consumer:
“The emerging portrait is of a person and consumer who is led by a new basic motivation: ambition to exhaust all possibilities and the fear of missing out on something.”
However, Herman didn’t use the FOMO acronym yet. This term was coined by then-student Patrick J. McGinnis in a 2004 article for The Harbus, the student newspaper of Harvard Business School. With a sarcastic wink, McGinnis reflected on his fellow students’ tendency to attend numerous events per night, hopping from sherry tasting to dinner to house party, desperately trying to not miss out on anything.
The acronym has since become a widely used hashtag on social media, a staple in pop culture, and even a subject of psychological research.
FOMO, Social Media, and Smartphones
The term FOMO might be relatively new but the phenomenon itself has been around as long as humanity. We are genetically hardwired to jump on opportunities. In our hunter-gatherer days, it could make the difference between us making a kill or going hungry. Likewise, keeping tabs on our social environment meant better chances of procreation. If we were the first to know that someone was sexually available again, we had a better shot at getting with them.
However, back then, there was a natural control mechanism for our FOMO. In a tribe of about 100 people, there are only so many “status updates” per day. You cannot go overboard.
But with the advent of mass culture, this changed. The bigger societies get, the more tempting it becomes to overindulge. During the 20th century, the information industry began to exploit this weak spot. Newspapers, radio stations, and TV networks grew fat on our fear of missing out.
The final nail in the coffin was social media — or at least, that is what people think. But it’s only partially true. Social media was the necessary condition, but smartphones were the sufficient condition.
In 2004, when Facebook came along, nothing much happened at first. I was a Graduate Teaching Assistant at OSU at the time, and while everybody soon signed up for Facebook, there was no change in communicative behavior. My students still yapped among themselves at the beginning of each class.
A few later, it was a completely different story. With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, a fundamental shift took place. When I walked into a classroom, now, there was eerie silence. The students were spellbound to their phones, endlessly scrolling their feeds.
This one-two punch — social media + smartphones — has fundamentally changed our culture. For anyone born after the year 2000, any of the following behaviors is now considered normal:
- Dates or friends sitting across a table, both staring at their phones.
- People giving only tentative RSVPs for an event, in case a better option comes along.
- People having one mini relationship after another, always assuming there is a more exciting option around the corner.
- Young professionals switching jobs every six months or so, fancying the next position will finally make them happy.
We are now aware of all the opportunities out there. And presented with so many choices, we don’t want to miss out on any of them. Our natural FOMO has been inflated to gargantuan proportions.
The FOMO Personality
It would be easy to blame our fear of missing out on the digital revolution. “Instagram & Co. are forcing me to be always connected. I can’t help it.”
But the answer is not that simple. Just like some people manage to refuse to eat fast food, some people also manage to stay clear of FOMO. It’s not just the technology.
Having coached dozens of people with severe FOMO over the years, I am now convinced that there is a FOMO personality type. It’s a combination of five traits:
- A lack of deep connection
- A lack of direction
- Being quick to believe things
- A hack mentality
- Status fixation
1. A Lack of Deep Connection
Your typical FOMOist lacks deep connections. That might seem like a contradiction, as FOMOists tend to be highly active in social contexts. They like to join groups like Toastmasters, online forums, paid coaching programs, etc.
But that is exactly why they must join every group and attend every event — to satisfy their immense social hunger. They are hoping by upping the quantity, eventually, the quality will follow. But that’s not how it works.
2. A Lack of Direction
People who don’t have a strong inner compass are more likely to succumb to FOMO. They are easily swayed by whatever is put in front of them. For example, in a group setting, they will readily agree with what person A is saying. But if person B shortly after says the opposite, they will then agree with that.
It’s the same with books or any other kind of content. Whatever the FOMOist is currently consuming is what they are swayed by. But as soon as they are exposed to something new, now they believe in that. They are moldable like clay.
3. Being Quick To Believe Things
Another common trait with FOMOists is a certain level of gullibility. They easily fall for scammers, especially if there is an element of social proof — if it is on TV or social media, it must be true. For example, they will see an ad of a guy in front of a Ferrari, and immediately buy their get-rich-quick course. It never crosses their mind that the Ferrari might not belong to that guy.
4. A Hack Mentality
The FOMOist likes to dream grand dreams, but they don’t like to do the hard work. That’s why they keep looking for a “hack” — a shortcut to success that nobody else has thought of yet. They keep sampling option after option (passive income, crypto, AI, etc.), hoping that one of these days, they might find a magic bullet. The irony — if they had spent that time on building something, they would already be successful.
5. Status Fixation
The FOMOist is highly concerned with social status. Your job title, the money you make, the person you date — all of this is a reflection of your value. If you don’t score high, you must be a loser.
The FOMOist is attracted to the status game because they understand it. Here, finally, is a simple framework they can use to assign value — how you compare to others. But to stay on top of that game, they must constantly gather data. They must constantly check how others are doing to see how they compare.
6 Signs You Might Be Suffering From FOMO
Certain telltale signs indicate you have fallen victim to a FOMO mindset.
1. You Say, “I Am Listening,” While Glued to Your Phone
You pretend to be present, but you are not. And when others point it out to you, you react angrily.
2. You Are Texting/Browsing While Driving
When you must check your Instagram while steering an SUV, that’s as FOMO as it gets. You are risking your life over somebody’s status update.
3. You Interrupt One Call Because of Another
When you simply must take person’s B call, even though you are on the phone with person A, it proves that you have no impulse control.
4. You Check Tinder While on a Date
There is someone attractive across the table from you, but you still check Tinder while they are in the bathroom — hoping for someone even sexier.
5. You Have Fallen for Scarcity Marketing Before
If you have ever bought something because someone told you, “There are only 2 seats left!” or, “Only four items left in stock!” chances are, you suffer from FOMO.
6. You Have Bought Into the Hype Before
Your FOMO mindset will chain you to whatever is trending. During the crypto hype, you frantically bought Bitcoin. During the AI craze, you outsourced your research to ChatGPT.
There are several FOMO-related acronyms:
- FOBO — “Fear of better options.” Offered with an opportunity, you express interest, but avoid committing. You are essentially keeping your options open.
- MOMO — “Mystery of missing out.” For example, your friend is not responding to your text messages, so you start wondering what you might be missing out on.
- ROMO — “Reality of missing out.” During COVID, as we were confined to our homes, we knew for a fact that we were missing out on stuff.
- BROMO — Your friends (“bros”) protect you from experiencing FOMO, e.g., by not posting vacation pics on Instagram.
- FOJI — “Fear of joining in.” You are hesitant to post on social media for fear of no one liking or commenting on your posts.
- JOMO — “Joy of missing out.” You have made your peace with missing out on opportunities and enjoy yourself doing so.
How To Get Over Your FOMO
Here are seven strategies to overcome your fear of missing out.
1. Pick Something
To combat FOMO, you must learn to choose. You must pick one option and reject all other options. And yes, that will be hard. You will objectively be missing out on many interesting opportunities.
For example, if you make your life about starting a successful business, at least for 3–5 years, you won’t have much time for partying it up. You won’t have much time for dating around. You won’t have much time for watching Netflix.
Do not trick yourself into thinking that you can somehow have it all. You can’t. Our time and energy are limited. To be truly successful at one thing, you have to forego most other things.
If that bothers you, consider the alternative. If you do what everybody does — not choosing anything — you will get what everybody gets. You will be mediocre at everything, and excel at nothing. That is much worse.
2. Quit Social Media
To get over FOMO, you must quit social media.
The first step is to admit to yourself that you have a problem. Social media addiction is real. If you harbor any doubts about your addiction, leave the house for a few hours, but don’t take your smartphone. Then feel the pang of disappointment every time you reach for your smartphone but remember it’s not there.
There are two approaches to quitting social media:
- Going cold turkey
- Gradually weaning yourself off
Going cold turkey is self-explanatory — you quit social media completely, from one day to the next. It’s the tougher option of the two, but it can be done. However, don’t try to establish any other demanding habits at the same time, like dieting or working out. You will need all the willpower you have.
Alternatively, you can gradually wean yourself off social media. For example, agree with yourself to not check any social media until 10 am. Once you can bear that, extend the rule to 11 am, then to noon, etc.
Either way, I recommend setting yourself a small goal. For example, aim to stick with the new behavior for a week. This will take off a lot of the pressure. Anyone can endure something uncomfortable for seven days. If, after that week, you want to continue the experiment, just agree on another seven days with yourself. It will now have gotten easier.
Also, make sure to remove triggers from your environment:
- Delete all social media apps from your phone.
- Block all social media sites on your computer, using a browser extension like BlockSite.
- When you leave the house, don’t take your smartphone.
Finally, be fully prepared to fall off the wagon several times. To overcome any addiction, you typically need more than one go at it. Don’t frame it as a failure. Instead think, “I got a necessary setback out of the way, that means one less to go.”
3. Be a Creator, Not a Consumer
A great solution to the social media dilemma is to build your personal brand — on social media. I realize this sounds like a contradiction. Didn’t we just discuss how to quit Instagram & Co?
However, there is a big difference between using social media as a consumer vs. using it as a creator. As a creator, instead of following the trends, you are initiating the trends. Instead of looking for inspiration outside of yourself, you must start digging within.
Also, being a creator is a full-time job. To be heard above the noise, you must constantly be producing. When you are that busy, you won’t have any bandwidth left to wonder about what you might be missing out on.
4. Avoid Looking Weak
FOMO is a bad look for anyone. There is something desperate about someone who is always running after the “hot” thing. Others can sense that you have no convictions of your own. It makes you appear spineless.
So, next time you are about to give in to your FOMO tendencies, remind yourself of this bad look. It will make you change course.
5. Don’t Be a Sheep
Social media giants look at their users like mindless sheep. The following leaked exchange between a young Mark Zuckerberg and his friend sums it up perfectly:
Zuck: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
Zuck: just ask
Zuck: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
Friend: what!? how’d you manage that one?
Zuck: people just submitted it
Zuck: i don’t know why
Zuck: they “trust me”
Zuck: dumb fucks
Of course, when these messages got out, the public outcry was enormous. But Zuckerberg was simply telling the truth — most users on social media cannot be trusted to act rationally. They would rather indulge their vices — FOMO, gossip, sensationalism — than do something productive with their lives.
So, ask yourself — do I want to be one of these mindless sheep? Am I okay with getting played? Do I enjoy making arrogant tech billionaires even richer?
No? Then you must get over your FOMO.
6. Look Through the Illusion
FOMOists feel the strong urge to compare themselves. They look at all these successful people on Instagram and imagine what it would be like to be in their place. It helps them to forget about their own dull existences.
But what you see on Instagram and what is going on behind the scenes are two very different things. The more perfect the facade, the more you can be sure that the reality doesn’t live up to it.
This is not just an empty claim. I have met various influencers over the years, some of whom I had been smitten with myself. But in reality, almost all of them fell short, and not just by a little. The contrast between the flawless online persona and the actual human was staggering.
If you suffer from severe FOMO, I recommend you do the same. Spend a few months in Bali or Dubai and meet some of your heroes. Then realize what a charade it all is.
7. Question the Status Quo
At the core of FOMO is a lack of independence. You are always running after what is “hot” because you have no internal compass.
To live an exciting, meaningful life, you must do the opposite. You must leave the herd behind and live by your own set of values. That means questioning the status quo.
Here are some ideas for doing that.
Question group think. At any point in time, there is a dominant societal ideology. It comes in all shapes and forms — left-wing, right-wing, religious, economic, etc. Most people will blindly submit to this zeitgeist, just to fit in. But maybe it’d be more courageous to make up your own mind?
Question the relationship paradigm. Most of us get on the relationship escalator — we start dating, move in together, get married, and have kids. Yet, half of all marriages get divorced and a good portion of the rest end up resenting each other. Maybe it’s time to consider new, unconventional relationship models?
Question the 9-to-5 paradigm. From an early age, we are told to climb the corporate ladder. “Get a good job,” our parents and teachers will tell us. But what is so good about commuting, sitting in a cubicle, and filling out Excel tables? Maybe it’d be more fulfilling to quit the rat race and start your own passion business?
If some of these questions scare you a little bit — good. Unlike FOMO, this kind of fear will induce personal growth. Follow it.