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Why Goldilocks projects are key to improving your motivation

By giving in to FOMO, we waste not just huge amounts of emotional energy, but time too.


Recently I was in a video conference with around 20 other attendees. It was run by the organisers of a fast-growth technology company’s global summit. All attendees had been selected to present at the summit and the call’s purpose was to learn about presentation strategies.

At this point, I need to confess something: The organisers had actually told me I didn’t need to attend this meeting, as it was only for first-time speakers. Despite this, something compelled me to hop on the call, for fear that I might miss some gem of wisdom.

The meeting was booked for two hours and, at the 20-minute mark, I decided to surreptitiously drop off the call. I had realised, even as an organisational psychologist who is well versed in FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), I had given in to its siren song. And I needed to reclaim the rest of the one hour and 40 minutes I could potentially lose.

FOMO is rife in most offices. We expect to be copied in every email that might possibly relate to our projects or our team, we accept meeting invitations that we don’t really need to attend, and we unhappily glance at the huge number of ‘likes’ everyone else’s LinkedIn posts seem to attract.

By missing out on a call, email or meeting, we worry that we won’t gain that critical piece of information needed to make our project a success. We worry we will miss that moment to shine in our boss’s eyes. And by giving in to FOMO, we waste not just enormous amounts of emotional energy, but time, too.

According to Social Comparison Theory, we are hardwired to compare ourselves with others. But when it comes to FOMO, the specific type of comparison we make is an ‘upward comparison’, where our target is someone who is seemingly doing much better than us. By contrast, our career is always going to be doomed to failure.

FOMO leads to all sorts of problems. It leads to living your life by someone else’s standards. Does it matter that your colleague received over 300 ‘likes’ on their blog post? In the grand scheme of things, not at all. FOMO increases our anxiety level.

Research from the University of Toledo found a strong relationship between FOMO, anxiety and depression in those who use their smartphone excessively. Assistant Professor Darlene McLaughlin, from the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, states that FOMO instils anxiety and depression and can lead to a mental health diagnosis.

FOMO won’t magically disappear just because you are aware of it. We need to deliberately turn our FOMO into JOMO – the Joy Of Missing Out.

And FOMO decreases our self-esteem. Research led by Professor Andrew K Przybylski at the University of Essex found that FOMO was associated with lower mood and life satisfaction. And in research conducted into time spent on Facebook, spending more time on Facebook each week led to people believing that others were happier and had better lives than themselves.

Because we are constantly making upward comparisons with those who seem to have their lives and careers together, we can’t help but look bad in comparison.

A few months ago, I interviewed WordPress Co-Founder and Automattic Founder Matt Mullenweg on my podcast ‘How I Work’ about his working habits. He commented that on some days he feels very unproductive. I couldn’t help but wonder who he was comparing himself against? If Mullenweg feels unproductive, what hope is there for the rest of us?

But FOMO won’t magically disappear just because you are aware of it. We need to deliberately turn our FOMO into JOMO – the Joy Of Missing Out.

A big reason why we experience FOMO is because we are out of touch with what truly motivates us. Instead, we evaluate our lives based on the benchmarks and expectations set by others. To turn FOMO into JOMO, we need to get reacquainted with what deeply motivates us (that is, foster intrinsic motivation). When we are intrinsically motivated, we naturally tune out the outside world because we are immersed in the task at hand.

Strategies to bolster intrinsic motivation and avoid FOMO


Work on an appropriately challenging project

When we find ourselves working on a project at work that is either too hard or too easy, our attention wanders. And it often wanders to our social media feed or some other distraction that feeds our FOMO. However, when we find the ‘Goldilocks’ project – that is neither too easy or too hard and is the perfect fit for our skill level, it becomes effortless to stay focused.

Working on a project that fits within your challenge sweet spot increases intrinsic motivation. We derive a sense of purpose through wanting to conquer the challenge. Because this type of work gets us into “flow”, we are 100% focused on ourselves and not on others.

Focus on your unique strengths

Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania Professor Adam Grant is well known for being a giver. Indeed, he wrote the book on it. When I interviewed Grant on ‘How I Work’, he spoke of how he aligns his approach to giving with his strengths. Grant identified two of his strengths, one of which is knowledge sharing.

“There’s almost nothing that brightens my inbox more than somebody reaching out and saying, ‘I had this question about something related to work psychology. Has anybody ever studied X?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, there’s a chance to take all that esoteric information that I’m collecting from academic journals and share it with somebody who might be curious about it or who can apply it in some way’.”

The second strength he identified is making mutually beneficial connections. “By virtue of the kind of work that I do, I get to interact with lots of different industries and kinds of people. It’s just really fun to connect the dots between two people who could help each other, or who could create something meaningful together.”

Psychology Professor Hadassah Littman-Ovadia and Professor Michael Steger found that when people recognise their own strengths, they report feeling that their life has a clearer sense of purpose – a key driver of intrinsic motivation. When we recognise our strengths, we feel more confident in our ability to pursue what truly matters to us.

In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, the researchers asked participants to dedicate 15 minutes to writing about their best possible self and then spend time thinking about what their life would look like if everything unfolded as they desired.

In contrast, a control group spent 15 minutes writing about a typical day in their life and then imagining what their future would look like. In comparisonto the control group, those who imagined their best possible self reported feeling significantly more optimistic. When we form vivid images of ourselves and our future, related consequences feel more likely.

Foster connections IRL

According to self-determination theory, feeling connected to others is an important facilitator of intrinsic motivation. And not surprisingly, research also shows that people who feel lonely experience FOMO more acutely. As such, increasing our own connectedness through prioritising face-to-face gatherings helps us focus on our own life, rather than that of others.

Carolyn Creswell, Founder and CEO of Carman’s Kitchen, a muesli business turning over A$100 million (US$68.8 million) annually, places huge importance on face-to-face connections in the workplace. At Carman’s Kitchen HQ, there is a ban on eating lunch at your desk. Instead, at 12.30pm every day, all staff stop work to eat lunch together at a big communal table, with meals prepared by an in-house chef. Staff do puzzles together, have a laugh, and then return to their desks.

If you don’t have time to take a lunch break and connect with your colleagues, researchers from Iowa State University uncovered a way to promote connection in just 12 minutes. Psychology Professor Douglas Gentile and his colleagues asked students to engage in 12 minutes of loving-kindness meditation, whereby they asked students to walk around a building on campus and whenever they saw a person, think to themselves, “I wish for this person to be happy”.

Compared with other interventions, such as a standard mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness meditation increased happiness, empathy and feelings of connection. So rather than feel jealous of others because we are missing out, we need to flip that and think about wishing happiness towards other people.

Make downward comparisons

Mark Twain’s wisdom of comparison being the death of joy is actually only half-true. It ignores the second type of comparison humans can make – ‘downward comparisons’. Downward social comparisons occur when we compare ourselves with others who are less fortunate, which leads to us feeling better about ourselves.

For example, research into downward comparison theory found that when job seekers compare themselves against a less qualified applicant, they feel better about their own qualifications. And in turn, their self-esteem increased. Making downward comparisons has also been shown to increase satisfaction with your life.

Rather than falling into the upward comparison trap triggered by FOMO, deliberately engage in downward comparisons to help improve your self-esteem and motivation. For example, rather than worrying about the meeting you opted to miss this morning, focus on how much more work you are getting done compared with your less fortunate colleagues who have chosen to attend the meeting.

As I look ahead in my calendar to meetings I have coming up in the next few weeks, I can see a few more group video calls approaching to prepare for this global summit. Rather than hedge my bets and attend half-heartedly in case I miss out on something, I am going to delete them all from my diary and bask in the joy of missing out.

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