Have you ever felt that you are avoiding committing to an existing option because you feel that you will get a better option in the future? Well, you are not alone. What you are facing is Fear Of a Better Option or FOBO. Here is how it manifests:
Recently I wanted to buy a car. I started by looking for an electric vehicle (EV). But soon I realised that we currently have inadequate infrastructure for EVs. So I changed my mind and decided that I would make a temporary adjustment and buy a second-hand car. Soon I realised that second-hand cars were also expensive and carried a risk of more maintenance costs. So I again changed my mind. As I wanted better mileage, I decided to buy a CNG car for the next 4-5 years after which I would buy an EV. My father and brother went to all major showrooms and shortlisted a few cars. But when I saw them, I thought that I don’t have enough choices in CNG vehicles. I also spoke to my automobile-savvy friend who made me realise that CNG cars don’t have better engine power. He spoke highly of his compact SUV, I again changed my mind and started thinking that a compact SUV will be a better status symbol. As I reached the same showrooms, salesmen were baffled. They said that my choice is completely different from my earlier interest. As I was still confused I wanted to postpone my decision to the next auspicious day. Fortunately, my father put his foot down and asked me to make any decision in one day. Finally, after seeing tens of different vehicles, I booked a compact SUV.
In the above scenario, I faced many problems. I wanted an environmentally friendly vehicle but I didn’t want to take risks. I wanted better mileage but wanted a better-looking status-enhancing vehicle. I also wanted my car to be on par with my friend’s cars and all of this at a reasonable price. The problems I faced in the above scenario are quite common in today’s world. They are called Fear Of a Better Option or FOBO. Tim Herrera of The New York Times defines FOBO as that spiral we fall into when we obsessively research every possible option when faced with a decision, fearing we’ll miss out on the “best” one. It can lead to indecision, regret and even lower levels of happiness.
FOBO makes you avoid committing to an existing option because you feel that you will get a better option in the future. You worry about possibilities and delay taking decisions. You also feel that knowing everything about each possible option will empower you to make the best decision. So you go on the internet and try to find all possible options and try to know more about each of them. You don’t want to make a choice which you will regret later when your friend informs you of a better option. You fear looking like a fool if you make a choice which has fewer benefits and a higher price. This leads to ‘analysis-paralysis’.
Today’s tech-enabled age offers us many choices and unlimited information available at a click, free of cost. As we have many choices, we want to make the best choice. As we share everything on social media, we also put ourselves up for people’s criticism. We don’t want to risk buying a phone and someone commenting that we could have waited another month for the launch of the next generation of the same phone. As we don’t know which is a better choice, we try to gather as much information as possible. So we spend a lot of time on insignificant decisions and lose focus on important areas of our life. We want to make the best choice in every small decision. We waste a lot of time and energy, we procrastinate instead of taking the decision and moving on.
FOBO makes us feel comfortable but it takes a lot of time and energy. It also affects the lives of others around you as they also have to wait for your decisions.
It can also affect your reputation as you are acting half-heartedly and change your mind often the moment you see a better option. Some people call themselves ‘commitment phobic’. It is also a type of FOBO as one is not sure of the available option as one is afraid of losing out on the better option in the future.
But many people ask what is wrong with knowing more about something. Isn’t it better to have more choices? Isn’t it better to have a menu card full of different dishes instead of just one dish? The problem is if you start researching each dish, if you start reading reviews about each dish, if you start getting in details of caloric value, healthiness or unhealthiness before ordering the food then it will become almost impossible to eat something when you are hungry. An endless search for better options can also lead to risk aversion. This debilitating indecision not only affects you but also the people around you.
As you value choice, you never close any door, you open new doors but are afraid to close any of the already opened doors. You don’t want to regret closing the wrong door. So you procrastinate and hoard all the options wishing that in the future you will be able to make the best choice among those hoarded options. But the more you procrastinate, the more of the options will slip away. As the deadline will appear you will settle for anything fearing missing out on everything. Psychologist Barry Schwartz postulates that having more choices makes settling on one of them far more stressful. Those people who want to only choose the best option make better decisions but are far less happy with the choices they make.
What to do about FOBO?
Understand that working on your FOBO doesn’t mean choosing the first option and settling on anything. It is not ordering the first dish on the menu card blindly but it is not wasting time and energy unnecessarily on the research about each dish. Discard an option and don’t go back to it. This act of reconsidering an already considered option takes away a lot of time and energy. Patrick McGinnis who came up with the term FOBO gives a systematic way to avoid getting trapped in FOBO:
Formulate exactly what you are going to decide.
Set criteria to frame your decision. Make a list of basic parameters which will meet your standards. Don’t set too many parameters as it can lead to analysis paralysis.
Find out if your options are meeting your criteria or not. If an option doesn’t fit your criteria then permanently discard it.
Select a frontrunner
Based on the overview of the information you can get an idea of which will be a frontrunner option.
Systematically eliminate inferior options
Compare each option with your frontrunner. If that option is not as good as the frontrunner, then discard it permanently. However, if the option is better than the frontrunner then be flexible to replace the frontrunner.
Continue this process until you are left with just two options
Your first option and a backup option. You will only return to the backup if your first option is not available for some reason.
Write it down
Committing your process in writing will help you to make it rational and well thought out. It will also help later when you want to know why a particular option was chosen or discarded.
Resist ranking the choices as it is also a type of FOBO.
Consider each option in its entirety and choose or eliminate it.
If you still can’t make a choice, discuss it with your friends, family members or colleagues.
Talk to less than 5 people and preferably in odd numbers so the tiebreaker will be ready.
Understand that this process doesn’t necessarily help you take the best decision. There is no process which will guarantee the best decision every time. You have to revisit your decisions and make changes if they turn out to be wrong. However, this process will help you to make a fair decision which most often is enough. Choosing action over option value is imperative to avoid procrastination.
“Choice exists when there is confusion. A mind that sees clearly has no choice.” -Krishnamurti
Dr Chinmay Kulkarni is a psychiatrist practising in Mumbai. He believes that mental health is an ignored topic in India and millions of Indians are suffering in silence because of this. The views expressed are the author’s own.