Why spreading yourself too thin is such a beguiling trap (thanks FOMO) and what to do about it

Posted on Feb 3, 2014 | 0 comments

Why spreading yourself too thin is such a beguiling trap (thanks FOMO) and what to do about it

As I make my own Slow transition, I have been reflecting on just how thin I had been spreading myself, the detrimental effects of this, why it occurs and how to correct it.

Along the lines of my habit, intention and routine blog posts, I’ve had to face the fact that trying to do everything, no matter how awesome those things are, leads to only half doing everything. which is frustrating at best, and can be depressing. Carl Honore describes this as doing everything hurriedly and nothing well, a symptom of Fast culture.

Slowing down in order to regain a sense of control1 and mastery2, both fundamentally important to health and happiness, was certainly one of my motivations for the project. Here is a saying that has stuck with me for years:

“Happiness is simple, simplicity is difficult”

Life is amazing and there’s so much cool stuff to do! Yes but spreading yourself too thin leads to half-finished tasks, multitasking (which is not actually multitasking it is dividing and losing your attention) hobbies you never master and stay stuck at the ‘beginner’ level, not being able to fully get in the moment with these activities, and grass is greener thinking which leads you to switching activities in case something else is better, and the cycle continues.

Remember this: if you don’t have attention, you don’t have time3 

How does this occur?

We live in a hyper connected world where we are constantly presented with options and choices, and moreover we can see what other people are doing so much more than ever before. We are social creatures and are hardwired to compare ourselves to others which has a significant effect on our happiness. Consider this point from Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less; when you consider or are presented with more options you experience more buyer’s remorse and the outcome is less fulfilling. I’m pretty darn sure this transfers over to experiences not just material objects.

Heard of FOMO before? That is the twitter-friendly acronym for ‘fear of missing out.’ FOMO has become quite a phenomenon in itself, noticeably aggravated by heightened awareness of how much is going on thanks to social media. But thanks to the acknowledgement of this as a phenomenon, a distinct backlash against it has been enabled. Check out this article on the Joy of Missing Out.

This is the double-edged sword of the privilege; there is so much we could do, how do you content yourself with only a small fraction of the buffet?

It doesn’t help that we live in a Fast-dominated culture where we are groomed to take on a ‘do everything’ mentality. What happened to down-time?! The value of rest and reflection has been somewhat forgotten along the way.

What can we do about it? 

Some people I know really seem to be able to take on a significantly larger number of things and thrive. So I’m not trying to say just do less full stop (Slow is about ‘just right’, not extremes), but in our Fast-dominated culture there is certainly a tendency to err to the side of too much. There is no magic formula determining how many hobbies you should have, how many times per week you should see your friends etc; it is up to you to be true to yourself, reflect (a lot, I’m realising) and make the changes, even if initially uncomfortable, that bring meaning and happiness to your life.

Although there is truth in it, “learning to say no” is overly simplistic. Teasing out what are the things to devote time to and what are things to switch off from is no mean feat. For instance, I like to think that I don’t spend my time on things I should say no to because I don’t do things that I consider purposeless such as watching TV, reading gossip magazines, passing time socialising with people that don’t enrich my life etc. But I’ve found it exceptionally easy to find ways to fill my days with activities that truly weren’t top priority but could justify for example buying, preparing and eating healthy food, gardening, exercising and researching for the project. All worthwhile activities, but I could spend my entire day doing these things. That is a prioritising and making uncomfortable decisions problem.

Some tips:

  • As with so much with Slow, first place to start is with self-reflection and understanding your values, what is really important to you. Use this to prioritise and separate what motivation is coming from inside you and what is social conditioning and externally driven.
  • Ask yourself if you really need to do this activity. Will it make you happier in the long term or will it just add to frustration and overwhelm?
  • Ask yourself why you feel the need to do the activity; if the answer involves ‘should’ take a good hard look at it. Even if it seems urgent, what is the worst that could happen if you don’t do it? I used to always go to all social events if I at some point in time had said I would. I now am much more comfortable with acknowledging when I’m tired and wouldn’t be great company anyway and staying home. This applies to work as well, it is not just your personal life that needs some trimming I bet!
  • I’ve found it useful to think in phases. Rather than do a little bit of this, a little bit of that, all the time, I decided when it was a month to focus on my house, when it was a month to focus on writing, when I needed to give up the ‘productive’ activities and go have fun!
  • Self-imposed disconnection can be great. I recently went to Thailand for a few weeks, intending to just focus on only one physical activity at a time (rock climbing in one place and fasting in another) and using rest time to do some work. This worked a treat, without all the usual triggers for things I should do (aided by not having convenient internet access), I was able to succeed at both activities and could think more clearly about what I working on. It was so good I’m plotting a way to get back there and just focus on climbing and the Slow project work I’ll have to do before I head off on the ride around Australia.

What strategies do you employ to give each activity the time it deserves?

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  1. I mean internal locus of control, not the need to control everything. Much research about this, see for example http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-real-story-risk/201212/control-freak-or-healthy-sense-control []
  2. Refer to Seligman’s latest happiness model, PERMA, where mastery features as part of Achievement. []
  3. thanks Tim Ferriss for that gem of wisdom []

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