Are You Missing Out?

elephantsPaul Miller, a senior editor at online magazine The Verge, wrote an interesting column last week about “missing out,” a feeling that has, according to some researchers, become something to fear among users of social media.

It’s got its own acronym: FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and has been discussed in the The New York Times, The Guardian, Psychology Today, and network news outlets, usually with quotations from sociologist Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other.

FOMO gets triggered in many people when they see Facebook or Twitter updates from friends (or “friends”) who mention doing something other than what the update-reader is doing. If you’re sitting at home and your friends are out on the town, you might wonder what you’re missing. But even if you’re out doing something, you might wonder if there’s something better to be doing. As psychologist Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational) suggests, “You can imagine how things could have been different, and that really motivates us to behave in strange ways.” For many people, FOMO creates the impulse to post an update about whatever it is you’re doing — thereby passing the FOMO along to someone else.

But back to Paul Miller. Miller is midway through a self-imposed year away from the internet, detailed in his April 30 column at The Verge. For a technology writer, videogame enthusiast, and online journalist, this might seem like a quixotic challenge, so he set himself some rules, which include not browsing the web, asking anyone else to use the web for him, or updating any software.

His September 24 column, Offline: Email describes the many ways his life has been made difficult by his self-imposed ban on email: it’s difficult to get phone contacts for friends or leads for his journalistic writing; when he leaves voicemails, people often don’t reply; and he’s left out of social invitations. He says:

I know nobody means anything by it. Again, this is all my problem, and I’m really inconveniencing others much more than I’m inconveniencing myself. Still, it’s hard not to feel like I’m in middle school, and I’m getting the silent treatment from a friend I’ve recently wronged. I really do feel like I don’t exist at times.

Obviously, Miller does miss out on events and information by being disconnected from the internet, and it sometimes makes him feel left out. But his most recent column, Offline: Missing Out describes how, without the internet, he’s watching network television and finding it difficult to turn off, in another form of FOMO. Miller writes:

I want to be okay with missing out, because it’s a skill that I want to have when I’m back on the internet. It’s the difference between checking Twitter once every four hours, or for four hours at a time. . . . When I “miss out” on one thing, I get to spend my attention on another thing — something that’s my definition of important, not CBS’s.

Although I disagree with many of Miller’s anti-technology screeds, I think here he’s absolutely right. Missing out can be a skill and a conscious choice.

In so many areas of our work and personal lives, we have to make choices. We have to choose to miss out on something:

  • the panel session scheduled at the same time as another one you want to attend at a conference
  • some percentage of the 3,000 bibliographic references your searches returned for a new research project
  • a professional meeting that conflicts with a family event
  • the latest independent films that you would have rushed out to see when you were a student, but no longer have time for
  • joining a new social media platform because you’re already using several

What do you choose to miss?

Taking the time to frame your decisions as conscious choices reduces that fear of missing out.  The words and the feeling of “missing out” echoes those of  “left out,” which we often experience as something that happens to us, rather than something we actively do ourselves.

When you’re feeling pulled in several directions, ask yourself:

  • Who do I choose to be, right now, in this moment?
  • How do I choose to act?
  • What do I choose to focus on?

What are you OK with missing? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user blieusong]

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