One of my main motivations for stepping up from a Software Engineering role into that of an Engineering Manager was to have a bigger voice in the decision-making process. Seeing leaders and managers going into a room and closing the door behind them had always presented a feeling of dread.
What are they talking about? What decisions are being made? How will it affect me?
The logical solution to this apprehension appeared to be an easy one: become a manager.
Unfortunately, the grass is not always greener on the other side. While becoming a manager provided more access to information, it created many new problems and challenges and did not resolve the underlying issues that were creating the anxiety.
The change in role and reflection upon the mental apprehension led to three conclusions:
- The conversations and decisions being made weren’t that much different in scope.
- There is always someone higher up making decisions that you will not be a part of.
- The anxiety around missing out is a mental issue not solved with a new title or role.
Therefore, the resolution to this issue does not occur by simply being in the room where it happens.
While fear of missing out is not a new idea, it has grown in the social consciousness, receiving an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013. FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out, is a recognized state of heightened anxiety where one feels that other people are more in-the-know than you are and this is causing you to miss some things that could provide more happiness or benefit to you.
A 2013 study on this topic, “Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out” states the following definition for FOMO:
…the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out — that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.
The prevalence of FOMO has risen alongside the spread of social media. There are cases of it everywhere. Celebrity birthday parties, investing in Bitcoin, and missing Burning Man highlight the massive amount of experiences that we are all missing.
Even babies are experiencing this phenomenon.
The Broadway show Hamilton is so rife with FOMO that an entire song is devoted to the topic:
No one else was in
The room where it happened
The room where it happened
The room where it happened
No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in
The room where it happens
The Room Where It Happens by Lin-Manuel Miranda from Hamilton
The culmination of any movement may occur when a counter-culture appears. JOMO as the new FOMO already exists. The Joy of Missing Out attempts to prevent the burnout associated with the condition through the advocacy of deliberately not using devices.
Reflecting on my own experiences, there are some obvious triggers for FOMO. My first major Engineering role was at a company coming out of bankruptcy. Reductions In Force (RIFs) were a fairly common occurrence. A lack of maturity and impatience at the lack of perceived forward progress were also holding me back.
These factors contributed to the impatience and anxiety that eventually led to the pursuit of other opportunities. There are benefits to encountering these feelings. It has made me a better manager. It is easier to identify this behavior in a teammate due to my experience. The feedback that I can provide around FOMO is more targeted and relevant.
Yet, as a manager, while I can be proactive about creating an anti-FOMO environment, every Engineer needs to take steps to not let this anxiety get out of control.
The sources for workplace FOMO, on their own, create small impacts. However, combined, they can overwhelm even the most focused people. Some common sources of workplace noise include:
- Instant Messaging — Slack or Microsoft Teams provide constant sources for interruptions. The amount of overall noise ramps up when automation comes into play. The messages, pings, and alerts from both automated and human sources can grow to obscene levels during busy periods.
- Email — There is a reason that some companies implement email policies that prevent emailing during certain times of the day. Email may represent the oldest form of electronic noise at work, but it still creates a large potential for distraction throughout every business day.
- Meetings — If not attending then they create anxiety about what is being discussed. If attending, they create apprehension about what other people are accomplishing. If attending and presenting then speaking in front of peers and managers can create stress.
- Personal Stuff — The world doesn’t stop turning during the workday. Personal issues play a part in people’s moods and emotions while at work and can contribute additional angst on top of any stress coming from the workplace.
What solutions exist to not only get through every day of the work week and also create opportunities to come out ahead in terms of getting something done? What are some ways to manage the stress that comes from our workplace without getting frustrated, experiencing burnout, or worse?
The immediate thing to do is to step back and breathe for a moment. This is the first and one of the most important skills that anyone can have towards overcoming stress.
The goal here is to change perspective and help put things into context. This is not just a good skill for stress, but is a great skill to foster for everything you do at work. Taking a moment to step back helps to drain the stress, anger, resentment, or frustration away and allows focus on the solution for the problem instead of getting upset that a problem exists.
With some perspective on the thing or things that are causing immediate stress, now the focus can turn towards other ways to reduce workplace FOMO. Remember:
Work is infinite, but time is finite.
The song “The Room Where It Happens” provides a master class in dealing with workplace FOMO.
For those not familiar, the song is from the Broadway musical Hamilton. To create the musical, Lin Manuel Miranda drew source material for the musical from historian Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton.
The song refers to a dinner meeting between Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Aaron Burr, who was not present, provides the imaginary narrative for the dinner party in a masterful example of political FOMO.
For Burr, it validated his fear of not being in the room as the results of the evening produced some decisions with massive consequences. These decisions were a compromise that both established the nation’s capital in Washington DC and enacted a federal taxation plan that Hamilton was proposing.
Or, through more eloquent poetry:
The art of the compromise
Hold your nose and close your eyes
We want our leaders to save the day
But we don’t get a say in what they trade away
We dream of a brand new start
But we dream in the dark for the most part
Dark as a tomb where it happens
I’ve got to be in
The room where it happens
The Room Where It Happens by Lin-Manuel Miranda from Hamilton
This verse establishes a blueprint for addressing workplace FOMO.
“The art of the compromise — Hold your nose and close your eyes”
This one is straightforward. Reduce your noise and limit your sensory inputs. Shut it out, hold your nose, close your eyes. Put in some earplugs if you need to. By minimizing the things in front of you and focusing only on the elements providing meaningful information, you will have more bandwidth to sift and filter the information flow down to a manageable level.
- Reduce The Number of Tools In Use — The more tools that in play, the more context switching that must occur to complete tasks. For most Engineers, completing tasks provides a shot of dopamine in the same manner that prompts a compulsive check of Instagram. The good news is that you don’t get paid for checking Instagram, you get paid for completing work tasks. A reduction in the number of communication channels and tools allows more focus on the important tasks instead of distractions.
- Adjust Notification Settings — For daily tools, take the time to explore the settings. Every communication tool and project management app has notifications settings. Even Windows 10 has new Focus Assist settings. Managing notification settings allows only the most important messaging through and lowers daily noise.
- Multitasking Is A Myth — Concentrating on a single task provides a lot of benefits during daily work. Treat checking notifications as just another task to complete instead of a constant interruption. Managing anxiety is easier when checking notifications is a task that only occurs after completing more important items.
- Define Your Processes And Stick To Them — One way to exert control over your steps and actions throughout the workday is to establish routines and processes. This includes taking notes, to-do list administration, and personal task management. Owning the management of your time is a great way to build confidence in your actions and avoid FOMO.
“We want our leaders to save the day — But we don’t get a say in what they trade away“
Consider this in reverse order. The feeling of missing out can be strongest when we feel that we don’t have a voice or a part of the decision-making process. Frustration occurs when the decisions and reasons behind those decisions are not transparent to all involved.
The answer to not having a voice is to step up and be more of a leader and work from your position to build the connections needed to gain more visibility into different areas. In doing so, this will lift the veil, showing the hidden information. The goal here is to be a leader with a voice in the decisions being made and therefore have more visibility into, and connection with, daily business functions.
- Choose Your Battles — This item is all about controlling what you can and exerting influence over your environment. You cannot control everything and need to assign appropriate levels of importance to events to know what to fight for. What is more important, getting into an argument over who should clean the coffee pots or getting everyone on board with an amazing idea for the next project? The philosophy of not sweating the small stuff is a great leadership trait. Following this advice over time allows others to realize that when you fight for something that it has meaning and is worth careful consideration and review.
- Stay In The Know — If meetings are optional, then don’t be afraid to go see what is going on. Use the tools available to check out product roadmaps and upcoming initiatives. Use this information to position yourself to be knowledgeable about projects and events. In doing so, you will create transparency showing that you aren’t missing out. This effort can also expose opportunities to step up and tackle new projects and show leadership in different areas.
- Build Face To Face Relationships — You can build relationships via text and communication tools, but a huge part of human communication is non-verbal. There is even less understanding provided when communicating only by text. The chance for misinterpretation when chatting on Slack is much, much higher than when talking to someone face to face. Building relationships in person will go a long way towards making communication better and then, when communication does need to occur via text, the chance of the message creating anxiety from being misread is much less.
- Ask for 1-on-1s — These face-to-face meetings are becoming very popular for the interaction and relationship building opportunities that they present. Not only do they provide a two-way street for feedback and constructive criticism, but they present huge opportunities to address many of the symptoms of FOMO through straightforward conversations. 1-on-1 meetings with your manager can be a great way to gain insight and knowledge, build relationships, and work through workplace anxiety.
“We dream of a brand new start — But we dream in the dark for the most part — Dark as a tomb where it happens“
We are back to the first step — relax. Stress can feed on itself and grow to overwhelm even the strongest of people. In the worst cases, incorrect identification of the root cause causes some people to look for new environments to avoid the stressors.
However, this becomes an exercise in avoidance. Before jumping at a new opportunity, a focus on the present to explore the source of the anxiety is beneficial. This generates a better state of mind in the here-and-now. If you do this and still feel the need to test the waters elsewhere, then at least the action occurs with a clear head.
When reacting instead of considering, we are fumbling around in the dark thinking a brand new start will solve all problems. Instead, try to shine some light into these dark corners to quell the anxiety before it can start.
- Be Realistic — No one person can be a part of every project and help on every task, nor can any one person consume every message every day. Let some things slide, and that is OK. Remember, there are people out there embracing JOMO — the Joy Of Missing Out. It can be a powerful tool. It is OK to go full Elsa sometimes and just “Let It Go“
- Engage Teammates And Help Others — Interacting with other people on your team or other groups in the organization is a fantastic way to build relationships. This provides insight into what others are working on, keeps you in the loop, and builds leadership skills that can open more doors going forward. Even if you aren’t jumping in on a work problem, getting out of your office and talking face-to-face strengthens the culture of your environment.
- Shift Your Focus — Let’s face it, FOMO is a mental condition. If you can figure out how to identify when you get into that state, then you can take steps to change your mental state into a more positive and productive mindset. This isn’t easy, but in building your processes and focusing on singular tasks it is possible to re-focus on one thing and work to move on when you identify the feeling that you are missing out on something.
- Practice Mindfulness — If all else fails, some general focus on yourself can get you over the hump and into a better state of mind. Exercise is always beneficial. There are many shorter, 2–5 minute meditation routines available through basic searching or apps. Try a few minutes of meditation in a quiet corner when you feel the anxiety starting to build. Go outside for a few minutes during a break or at lunchtime to soak up some vitamin D. The goal here is to focus on yourself and your needs so you can get past this anxiety and be the best you possible.
“I’ve got to be in — The room where it happens“
With a little effort, you won’t feel the need to be in the room where it happens to feel fulfilled and happy at work.
This is not easy. The conditions that bring about FOMO are not going away — they will get worse. Information overload will only increase as more systems and data come online.
There are bright spots. AI functionality may help to consolidate and streamline notifications. We, as a society, may learn to unplug more and work a little less as automation gains traction.
For the here and now, instead of staying on the negative FOMO spiral, focus on the positive and happy path. Targeting and thinking about happiness begets more happiness.
Fixating on cheerful things allows for the expression of gratitude and helps to reinforce joy. Maybe you can even define a personal mental room to inhabit — then you need not stress and waste time lamenting about being in someone else’s!
Thanks for reading!
Originally published at kevinwanke.com on December 4, 2019. Kevin’s blog focuses on advice for new Engineers and for Engineering Managers.