Getting Rid of What’s Not Worth Worrying About, With Swear Words

A few months ago, I shared a hotel room at a writer’s conference with my
friend Jodi. Like me, she’s a writer, which means we routinely trade war stories. I was telling her about a situation where an editor had said something I considered flippant in her revise note back to me. “I mean, can you believe she said that? How offensive!” I said. There may have been wild gesticulating involved. It’s possible my face was red. I think I was even sweating a bit.

“You’re oddly upset about this,” Jodi said.

“Yes! I mean, why did she say that?”

“I don’t know that,” she replied. “But I do know this: Shit like that is not in my fuck budget.”

Right. The fuck budget. Oh fuck.

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Illustration by Julia Yellow

I was supposed to make one of those after reading The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight last summer. Her book may be a spoof of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but it’s quite brilliant. Knight simply remixes what Kondo says, arguing that when you give a fuck about too many things, you can’t focus on giving a fuck only about the things that bring you joy or truly matter. In the same way you tackle your wild sock drawer, you have to systematically go through all the fucks you’re giving, sort them into piles, and throw away the ones sapping your energy for absolutely no good reason.

My friend’s words reminded me that I was giving a fuck about way too much, including a potentially snide comment from an editor I barely knew for a project I didn’t particularly care about. That example was but one of a great many things I found myself caring about, including:

• That my husband and I weren’t saving enough for retirement;
• How many iPhone chargers we had in good working order;
• What the neighbors thought of the giant platform my husband built for our son to use for jumping onto the trampoline to do extreme flips;
• People who were jerks on Facebook;
• Whether or not I should point my toes when I swam;
• The worry that my mom would get sick and fall into a slow decline, just like my dad, and how I couldn’t possibly watch that again;
• Refugees and asylum-seekers getting turned away at borders;
• That we were letting the kids eat too much sugar and watch too many screens;
• That we probably sucked as parents in general, especially since 300-plus people had told me I was a bad parent in the comments of a piece I wrote for The New York Times;
• Fear of losing all my data and everything breaking every time I did app, phone, or computer updates;
• That I was living a life of white privilege in a first-world country and not doing enough (i.e., anything) to make the world better;
• The poison ivy that kept reappearing in the back garden and, actually, all poison ivy everywhere we went;
• That I wasn’t as creative as I used to be;
• The guilt I felt when I started a book, stopped liking it halfway through, and didn’t finish reading it; and
• My daily terror that my kid would break his neck doing his extreme flips on the trampoline.

And those were just what popped into my mind right away. The list was so much longer, but all of the same texture—things of varying degrees of importance mixed in with stupid crap that zapped me. With my birthday coming up in September, I knew the gift I wanted to give myself: A gorgeous, sparkly, drool-worthy fuck budget.

In her book, Knight leads you through a process to help streamline your fucks. But following someone else’s process is actually one of the things I’ve been successful at not giving a fuck about. Knight would high-five me on that for sure. I could DIY this fuck budget thing, no problem.

First, I started thinking about all the other things aside from following orders I had been successful in not caring about. It was a pretty good list: professional poker, whether or not marijuana was legalized, the Kentucky Derby, that I ate the same thing for lunch every day, the Catholic church, ATM surcharge fees when traveling, that I would never have a pre-baby flat stomach again, the price of gasoline, celebrities (except famous writers), Snapchat, my appearance when I exercised, March Madness, and if anyone thought it was odd that I didn’t change my name when I got married.

You have to systematically go through all the fucks you’re giving, sort them into piles, and throw away the ones sapping your energy for no reason.

Some had been things I once cared about (not professional poker, I assure you). Others were things that people in my life cared about, which meant there was pressure for me to care about (if only because they just kept yapping about it). How had I been able to shut off the flow of energy to these topics? I needed to know, because let’s face it: Some fucks are shaped like boomerangs and keep coming back at you.

I thought about my tactics for not caring, and identified four:

1. Distraction: When people talked about their brackets for March Madness, I imagined myself tumbling and doing my old gymnastics routines. When my husband watched professional poker, I looked at Instagram.

2. The ability to remember priorities: Yeah, I ran through town with my hair up in a messy knot, wearing running shorts from a decade ago and sporting an iPod Nano. Yeah, I had extra stomach skin. But I was happy to be fit and to live in a nice community where I could run, so I prioritized being healthy and being grateful above obsessing about my appearance.

3. Actively deciding not to care: Several years ago in New York City, I spent a good half-hour walking in search of a Chase ATM. I was nearly ready to cry when I had an epiphany: Just let the banks win and eat the $2.50!

4. Having a personal policy: A long time ago I decided to just eat hummus for lunch every day. Yes, I make exceptions sometimes. But in general, it’s what I eat because I like it, it’s easy, I don’t have to make a decision, and it ensures I don’t overeat. Once I labeled it “my policy,” I stopped caring if anyone thought it was weird. Ditto for keeping my maiden name and tuning out celebrity gossip. (Knight also talks about the brilliance of having personal policies.)

I could do this.

I piled my fucks all over the floor and sorted through them ruthlessly. The ones I decided to kick out of the budget clustered in five major areas:

1. Parent shame. Nobody shames better than parents, especially around the three Ss: sugar, screens, and safety. I’m a free-range mom who gives my kids Oreos and Cap’n Crunch and doesn’t have specific limits about screens. And far from forbidding my son’s extreme flipping, I actively encourage it because it brings him such joy. My kids are happy, healthy, and active and, thus far, don’t seem to be on a path to becoming serial killers. Score! In reality, what I valued was sitting down to dinner together as a family and giving everyone freedom to explore their own interests.

2. Tedium of technology. I hate updates. I hate keeping track of whether all the devices are charged. I hate the fact that charging cords are barely stronger than pipe cleaners. I don’t understand the cloud. I have to care a little—I want my phone charged and don’t want to lose all my e-mail—but I’ve made the kids more responsible for keeping the chargers in good working order and set a policy that, if they break them by yanking them around, they can save up their money to buy a new one. As for the fear of losing all my data anytime there’s an update, I started backing up to Time Machine.

3. Facebook standoffs with people. I enjoy having a rich and meandering conversation that makes me rethink my view on something, but that almost never happens on Facebook. The discussions that most zapped my energy were the rapid-fire ones with rude comebacks, where adrenaline was flowing and everyone wanted to sound smart (me included) but no one was actually listening. I set a personal policy to not engage in those discussions anymore, and blocked a bunch of people—including plenty of people I agree with politically but who are forces of negativity and seem to only want to bait.

4. Everything I couldn’t control about the future. What if my kids got sick? What if my mom broke her hip? I’m wired to be a “what if” thinker. That probably wasn’t changing. But I could use my distraction technique to stop letting every single future-based fear that popped into my head derail me. So, when I read about a friend of a friend whose child was just diagnosed with treatable leukemia, I sent a prayer into the universe for that family and a note of support via Facebook and then went and hugged my daughter and thought about how funny it was the time she fell off the toilet.

5. Commenters on my writing. It’s really hard to be told you’re a shitty person, but that’s exactly what happened when I wrote a piece for The New York Times about navigating Instagram with my 9-year-old son. I was crucified in the comments. It stung. And now I was in the middle of working on another piece for them that I knew would bring more negative comments. I was also writing a book about honesty where I was laying bare some serious stuff. I knew I had to be able to withstand the haters. I decided to use some combination of all of my tactics, because people judging me on public forums would be the most challenging thing to kick out of my fuck budget.

After all my sorting, there were basically four key line items left:

1. Things that engaged me. You know what? Pointing my toes when I swam (mostly pushing off the wall), did yoga, and jumped on the trampoline with my kids made me feel good. I love the feeling of straight legs and pointed toes. It didn’t mean I was some uptight weirdo; it meant I liked pointing my damn toes. It was officially in the budget, along with other tendencies, quirks, and habits that weren’t harmful and made me happy.

2. Trying to make a difference. Yes, reading the news was often heartbreaking, but I care about being informed. Holding myself accountable on things mattered. Even though being an engaged human being felt stressful, I wasn’t willing to cut it from the budget. I would continue to find ways to understand complicated issues and help people who needed it.

3. Helpful feedback. Listening to people who addressed me with real ideas—especially ideas that challenged my thinking—would only make me better. Smart feedback was a world away from hateful trolling or thoughtless comments, and I knew I had to keep it.

4. Time with my family. My family would always get the greatest share of my energy and caring. They were my most prized pair of socks, and they got top billing in my newly arranged drawer of fucks.

I still don’t know what to do about my poison ivy obsession—have you seen the way it takes over!?—but my budget is sparkling beautifully in the late summer sun. I’m not 22 anymore, but I don’t give a fuck. Happy birthday to me!

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