Travel Zen: Embracing the Joy of Missing Out

It's impossible to see or do everything: accepting this will make you a happier traveler

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.

I have since tried to travel differently, consciously limiting myself to fewer places.

Try to always be realistic about how much time you have, then pick a few places that appeal to you and 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. At all.

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 up.

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 silly, but it made a real difference.

I took my time watching a group of pelicans diving for fish. 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 much about it, 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, to quit Facebook, and to 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 take 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!

Instead of fighting the feeling of always missing out, it’s better to embrace it. Think of it as purposefully missing out on other places, so that you avoid missing out on the here and now.

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8 comments

  1. TEE Reply October 15, 2016 at 1:03 am

    Good suggestions and nice to know even a “professional” can suffer from these vacation killers! I just returned from a “bucket list” trip – 15 days in Tanzania on Safari. Because of the fact that I planned it off and on for over 2 years and that it carried the weight of the title”bucket-list-trip”, I find myself focusing on the “would-of’s”, “should-of’s” and setbacks rather than the amazing things I saw! Sadly, it is looking back on my pictures that makes me realize how amazing the trip really was!
    I think Vietnam and Cambodia are next up – going to bookmark this page and read it often – maybe, just maybe, I will tame the FOMO beast a little!

  2. Bruno Reply August 7, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    Thank you for this read, I just learned something today while planning a trip to SE Asia. Guilty charged, I do have FOMO in most of my travels. I tend to squeeze in everything, probably because I am constantly complaining my time to travel is not enough.

    I will definitely go back to my planning with a different perspective!
    Bruno recently posted…Porto Or Lisbon: Pros, Cons and Main DifferencesMy Profile

  3. Ramblingdays Reply June 13, 2015 at 11:16 am

    Guilty as charged – I find it very difficult to slow down, even when travelling
    long-term. FOMO is my nemesis, always sneaking up on me when I’m not paying
    attention … I blame it on my Germanic need to Be Productive and Do Stuff 🙂 I’ve
    not had much luck with #1 yet (let’s hope it comes with age) but agree wholeheartedly
    with #2. I now make it a point to stay put for a day or two as soon as I catch
    myself going down that rabbit hole, no matter where I am – in fact, the more “boring”,
    the better. Spending a couple of days just watching the world go by in a
    nondescript dusty little town where you have absolutely no reason to be, strolling
    around the market and drinking endless cups of tea at the only chai shop in
    town really brings home the fact that a) the world will not come crashing down
    around your ears if you spend a couple of days Doing Nothing and b) Doing Nothing
    with open ears and eyes can be a whole lot more interesting than Doing Something
    when your mind’s not present.

  4. AliceO Reply October 22, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    Thanks for this post that I just found, relaxed in my room near the river Tiger in Argentina. I think I had some FOMO moments during my trip, Argentina is soooo big and I arrived here with a lot of plans…that I just whatched fading away when I realized that I liked living in Buenos Aires or needed some rest in the nature…so here I am in one of the Tigre’s islands! My next destination will be Iguazú 🙂 bye!

    • Marek Indietraveller Reply October 23, 2014 at 9:28 am

      That’s lovely to hear. Argentina is such a wonderful country and it’s monstrously big for sure! It’s nice to just chip away at one place and really take it all in. Iguazu is fantastic by the way, be sure to visit both sides! 🙂

  5. Shannon Kircher Reply August 31, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Such a great point! I think most of us have fallen into this trap as we’re all hyper connected at all times. I have to remind myself daily to appreciate where I’m at, what I’m doing and that friends think that MY LIFE is pretty awesome, too.

  6. The Guy Reply January 15, 2014 at 4:52 am

    You make a very good observation here. You’ll never get to do everything and it is naive to ever think that you can. Travel slow and sure and you’ll enjoy the experience. Hey, if you miss something well all the more reason to return in the future.

    As you point out in your first bullet point, if you rush around trying to see everything then you will not take it in and enjoy it anyway.

  7. Lunaguava Reply January 10, 2014 at 3:34 am

    I must admit we’ve been guilty of FOMO in the past, back when we only had holiday time to spend and therefore rushed through a whole country in a couple of weeks. Nowadays, knee-deep in our long-term travel adventure/debacle, it’s much easier to take it slow and just be surprised, as you wrote. The little moments of revelation are becoming increasingly important to us, much more than checking sites off a list. Great post, congrats! Good luck and safe travels!

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