Recently a fellow backpacker told me she hadn’t enjoyed much of her journey because she had been massively affected by FOMO.
FOMO? I hadn’t heard of this before. It turned out she was talking about Fear of Missing Out. It’s a recent acronym for a phenomenon that has always existed, but which has become much more common in our hyper-connected age…
Do you ever look at all the fun things your friends of Facebook seem to be doing and finding it impossible not to compare it to what you did today?
Or have you ever been to a big music festival and constantly thinking about whatever else is going on at the other stages instead of enjoying the concert you’re watching now?
That’s typical Fear of Missing Out…
It’s a feeling I have also had while travelling, and it’s a feeling that has at times undermined my experience. The world is huge and even the most long-term traveller only has so much time to spend in one place, making it easy to constantly second-guess your decisions.
What if there is something better I could be doing or seeing right now?
What if I won’t get to see all the Top Things To See before my time is up?
Or the most insidious of all: what if someone else is having a better trip than I am?
For some travellers it can even turn what should be a meaningful journey into a crazy rat race just to tick things off a list—all the while clutching their dog-eared and highlighted Lonely Planets like their lives depend on it.
It’s a problem that’s exacerbated by the one-upmanship that sometimes takes place among travellers. You thought Angkor Wat was great? Wait till you’ve been to Borobudur! Oh, didn’t you do that stunning once-in-a-lifetime trek when you were in so-and-so a month ago? That’s too bad…
So in this constant whirlwind of wild stories, bucket lists and instantly shared mountain-top selfies… is it still possible to be happy with your chosen path?
Of course it is, but I think it sometimes requires a bit of conscious effort. Here are three things that I’ve had to learn to stay more in the here-and-now…
1. Accept that you can never do everything
The world is simply too big to see it all, and even individual countries are often impossible to cover fully. So I’ve learned to accept that my time is always going to be limited in some way, regardless of whether I have 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years.
Some people think it’s a waste not to try and cover everything, but I think it’s actually a bigger waste to experience places superficially.
A few years ago I spent two weeks rushing through many places in Peru and Bolivia because my time was limited. Most places along the way I saw only briefly before moving on. I regret parts of this trip: I was so focused on trying to ‘see all the trees’ that I never truly got to stop and be in the forest… so to speak.
Okay, my metaphors suck. What I’m trying to say is that on this trip I was too preoccupied with going broad that I never could really go deep. I have since tried to travel differently. (Later, on a second trip, I had the opportunity to spend a bit more time in Peru and Bolivia and I consciously limited myself to less places.)
Always try to be realistic about how much time you have. Pick a few places or things that appeal to you and then make the most of them.
2. Stop and focus on the present
About a month ago on my year-long trip in Latin America I realized I was no longer in the zone, so to speak.
I became too obsessed with the mechanics of travelling: I kept worrying about where I was going next, when I was going to be there, if I would be there in time to meet such-and-such…
Constantly planning the next steps in my trip began to seriously stress me out, so I knew I had to change things. One morning I took a deep breath and tried to forget about everything.
I went to a beach in Tulum in Mexico, which was a place I had actually already passed through a few weeks earlier… but this time it felt different. I forced myself to focus on what was around me, instead of wondering if there are other places I should be right now.
Maybe that sounds ridiculous, but it really made a difference.
I took my time watching a group of pelicans diving for fish, which was amazing to watch. Then I had a beer and sat on a swing at a beach bar for a couple of hours just looking at people walking by and chatting with the bar staff. I went to a restaurant and ordered something without thinking, just to try something new.
I did all this to force myself back into the flow… and it worked. Gone were all my thoughts about whether my route was on track, when I was going to be in Belize, or if there were any better beaches listed in some Top 10 somewhere that I should be going to instead. I was back to fully enjoying this beach.
3. Make it your own journey
This leads into a third lesson I’ve learned about travel: you are never under any obligation to do what any guide books or people tell you to do.
You don’t have to go to supposedly Must-See places that don’t appeal to you. You don’t need to go to an X number of countries before your journey becomes ‘impressive’. And most of all, not everything has to be worthy of sharing on social media under the hashtag “#epic”… as small moments not shared can be just as meaningful.
Every now and then it’s nice to simply put down the Lonely Planet, quit Facebook, and stop looking at travel blogs for a while (yes… I know you’re reading one right now!). It feels good to discover some things on your own… to a roll of the dice and let yourself be surprised, and to do it for no one but yourself.
If epic listicles or ‘Things To Do Before You Die’ collections make you feel like your trip is in some way inadequate, you need to step back from it all and just go with the flow.
FOMO may be an odd acronym, but I’ve found it to be a very real phenomenon. I think it helps being very conscious of any such feelings and to put them in perspective. By doing so you can avoid what is actually the worst case of “missing out”… namely missing out on the here and now.