Imagine these situations: three months before finishing up your final exams, you’re simultaneously approached by the two companies you’ve interned for, both of which are offering you a solid career prospect with good pay and lots of fringe benefits. In the second situation, you’ve been invited to a holiday party with your co-workers that is at the same time as your significant other’s family dinner.
Both of these situations present options where it is difficult to see into the future to see which one will be the best choice.
The Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) on the path not taken can be unsettling, at best. At worst, it can have serious negative consequences for your career and your family.
When faced with a situation where the path forward is not entirely clear, sometimes it helps to look backward first. A brief detour through some thoughts on habits can help to explain this.
Every movement of our body involves habits. Whether that’s scratching an itch or completing an MBA -- there’s a stimulus, activity, and reward cycle that’s completed. In the first example, the stimulus is the itch, the action is the scratch, and the reward is the pleasure. In the second example, perhaps the stimulus is a desire to open up more career options, the action is studying for exams and completing extracurricular events, and the reward is a more fulfilling career.
Sometimes that cycle takes a moment, like scratching an itch, and sometimes it takes years, like completing an MBA. In all cases, though, there is something that motivates the activity and some pleasure that results from the activity. When we stop, mid-activity, and ask ourselves where we’re going, we can lose sight of what initially motivated the activity -- we look forwards instead of backwards.
Taking this back to the previous scenarios, we can see that understanding our current activities by looking backwards can help us understand how to move forwards. Looking backwards isn’t as easy as turning around and looking into the past - we need help in order to get there. Because identifying other’s habits is much easier than recognizing our own, we should ask others for help.
It’s easy to see when a friend constantly chooses the wrong partner, but a bit harder to see ourselves doing the same thing. Enlisting the help of friends, family, and mentors (yes, one more reason to find good mentors) can really help us gain perspective on our own habits.
Side benefit: the more that we reach out for help and advice about our habits, the more likely we are to calm down and reflect on our own habits. Cultivating a calm mindset by reflecting on our habits means that we will be more likely to identify those habits ourselves. As a result, we’re more likely to recognize those habits in ourselves and others and get ahead of the curve: we anticipate where someone is going because we know what reward they’re seeking.
For example, think about the rewards that people are seeking: recognition and financial rewards are pretty high up there. Once we know that, we can better anticipate the steps they will take and help them accomplish their goals, and in the process proving ourselves invaluable as a colleague.
At the end of the day though, sometimes if you look forward and can’t see what to do, and looking backwards doesn’t help, then sometimes you just have to flip a coin and arbitrarily commit and see it through to the end.
If there's no particular reason for one choice over another, then sometimes it's just best to make a decision and stick with it, come what may. In many instances, persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
- The fear of missing out can create a sense of panic because we don’t know what to do.
- A way to get around trying to see into the future is to look to the past.
- The habit cycle (stimulus, activity, reward) helps us understand the why.
- If we can understand the stimulus, we can understand the motivation. If we can understand the motivation, then we can have a better sense of the right decision to make because we choose the outcomes that aligns with our motivation.
- Action: reflect on the past to better understand the future.
- Result: a better sense of where we’ve come from helps us better understand which options we should take.
- Added bonus: the more we reflect on the past, the more it becomes a habit, the easier it becomes and the more productive and insightful we become in everything else we do
Aaron is the Owner and Principal of Mass Habit Consulting where he helps organizations develop optimal strategies and habits for success.
He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Guelph and has authored one book, co-authored one book, and written 7 journal articles. Aaron has presented at 17 international conferences, and 9 public and professional conferences.