2016: The Key To Beating Stress Is…To Care Less

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Sarah Knight: ‘I stopped getting dressed up just to go to the local shop. Pyjamas are the new black.’ Photograph: Chris Buck for the Guardian
Sarah Knight: ‘I stopped getting dressed up just to go to the local shop. Pyjamas are the new black.’ Photograph: Chris Buck for the Guardian

By Sarah Knight
If you’re like me, you’ve been caring too much about too many things for too long. You’re overextended and overburdened by life. Stressed out, anxious, maybe even panic-stricken about your commitments. I was almost 30 years old when I began to realise it was possible to stop caring so much, but I was nearly 40 before I figured out how to make it happen.
As a self-described overachieving perfectionist, I was anxious throughout my childhood and adolescence. I tackled numerous projects, tasks and tests to prove myself worthy of respect and admiration from my family, friends and even casual acquaintances. I socialised with people I did not like in order to appear benevolent; I did jobs that were beneath me in order to appear helpful; I ate things that disgusted me in order to appear gracious. This was no way to live.
The first time I met someone who just didn’t give a you-know-what was in my early 20s. We’ll call him Jeff. A successful business owner with a large circle of friends, Jeff simply could not be bothered to do things he didn’t want to do – and yet, he was widely liked and respected. He didn’t show up to a friend’s toddler’s dance recital or to watch you cross the finish line at your 17th 5K, but it was OK, because that was just him. He was a perfectly nice, sociable and well-thought-of guy, but he clearly reserved his time and energy for things that were especially important to him: having a close relationship with his kids, playing golf, catching Deal Or No Deal every night. The rest of it? Not. Bothered. He always seemed so positively contented and, well, happy. Huh, I often thought to myself after spending time with him. I wish I could be more like Jeff.
Later, in my mid-20s, I had a downstairs neighbour who was an absolute nightmare, but for some reason I cared enough about his opinion of me to submit to his insane requests (such as the time he corralled a friend to stomp around my apartment in high-heeled boots while I listened with him from his living room below, hearing nothing, but gamely agreeing that it was a little noisy).
Then, nearing 30, I got engaged and started planning a wedding, an act that brings with it a veritable cornucopia of demands: the budget, the venue, the catering, the dress, the photographs, the flowers, the band, the guest list, the invitations (wording and thickness thereof), the vows, the cake – the list goes on.
Many of these things I truly cared about, but some of them I didn’t; and yet I gave each and every one of them attention, because I didn’t know any better. I became so stressed that I was about as far from contented and happy as it gets. Looking back, was arguing with my husband over playing Brown Eyed Girl at the reception really worth my time (or his)? Had minute attention to detail over the selection of hors d’oeuvres really been necessary when I didn’t get to eat any of them because they were passed round during our photographs? Nope.
There’s a long list of things I still care about – and near the top is being polite. Honest, but polite
But – and here’s where the tide turned ever so slightly – I had won one small victory: I may have had to think about the guest list (because I definitely cared about the budget), but you know what I never worried about? Seating charts. And in that small act, of deciding my guests were grown up enough to choose their own seat, I had eliminated hours of poring over the event-space schematics and moving aunts, uncles and plus-ones around like beads on an abacus. After the wedding, I was exhausted. I’d been pushed to my breaking point, yet I’d also seen a silver lining. Instead of putting that feeling of obligation ahead of my own personal preference, I’d just decided to let people land where they may. And did anyone complain? They did not.
Then, when I was 31, I had my very first panic attack. Have you ever had a panic attack? It feels not unlike drowning in a sea of hot lava while attempting to swim away from a lava-impervious shark with ninja-throwing stars for teeth. I had been taking on too much work, too many activities and too much debt, and it had all caught up with me. This wasn’t just a panic attack, it was a wake-up call. I was forced to start budgeting my time, energy and money in a more thoughtful way, unless I wanted to be visited weekly by Lava Shark.
Little by little over the next few years, I stopped caring about small things that annoyed me. I unfriended some truly irritating people on Facebook. I refused to suffer through another reading of friends’ plays. And I stopped getting dressed up just to go to the grocery store behind my house (pyjamas are the new black). Little by little, I started feeling better. Less burdened. More peaceful. I hung up on people calling from call centres to sell me things; I said no to a weekend trip with toddlers; I stopped watching season two of True Detective after only one episode. I was becoming my true self, able to focus more on people and things that actually made me happy.
In the summer of 2015, aged 36 and living in New York, I quit my job at a major publishing house, a career that had been 15 years in the making, to start my own business as a freelance editor and writer. The day I walked out of my high-rise office building – sliding down that corporate ladder faster than a stripper down the last pole of the night – I eliminated a whole category of things on which I had previously wasted time and energy: supervisors, co-workers, my commute, my wardrobe, my alarm clock.
I stopped caring about sales conferences. I stopped thinking about business-casual and town-hall meetings (in fact, I no longer know what these are). I stopped keeping track of my remaining holiday days like a prisoner tallying her sentence in hash marks on the cell-block wall.
Once I was released from the yoke of corporate ennui, I naturally had a bit of time on my hands and the freedom to spend it as I wished. I ate lunch with my husband, worked on a freelance gig or two (or went to the beach), and avoided the subway as much as humanly possible.
Soon, I realised I had my own insights to share with regard to life-changing magic. Brings you joy? Then by all means keep caring. But perhaps the more pertinent question is: does it annoy? If so, you need to stop caring, post-haste.
Since leaving my job, I have developed a programme for decluttering and reorganising your mental space. You will no longer spend time, energy and/or money on things that neither make you happy nor improve your life, so that you have more time, energy and/or money to devote to the things that do. I call it the NotSorry Method. It has two steps:
1 Decide what you don’t give a fuck about
2 Don’t give a fuck about those things
Not Sorry is how you should feel when you’ve accomplished this.
This might sound selfish, and it is, but it also creates a better world for everyone around you. You’ll stop worrying about all the things you have to do and start focusing on the things you want to do. You’ll be happier and more genial at work; your colleagues and clients will benefit. You’ll be better rested and more fun around friends. You might spend more time with your family – or you might spend less, making those moments you do share all the more precious. And you’ll have more time, energy and/or money to devote to living your best life.
In my experience, people who live this way fall into one of three categories: Children, Dickheads and The Enlightened. Children don’t care because they don’t have to. Generally, their basic needs are being met by the adults in their lives. Dickheads are genetically predisposed to get what they want no matter who they have to offend, step on or jerk around along the way. (Note: some children are also dickheads, but for our purposes that does not matter.) Unlike my pal Jeff, these people are not generally respected or liked. Feared, maybe, but not liked. If being liked is important to you, then you don’t want to turn into an dickheads. Sure, you might free up a few nights on your calendar every week, but that’ll be because the invitations stopped coming.
But the enlightened among us know that it’s possible to revert to that childlike state with maturity and self-awareness. There’s a long list of things I still care about (being on time, getting eight hours of sleep, artisanal pizza), and near the top of that list is being polite. Honest, but polite.
For example, if you’re the kind of person who sends a handwritten thank-you note to friends after you spend a weekend at their lake house, those same friends are unlikely to be offended when you decline their next invitation to join them at their favourite historical reenactment day. It’s just common sense. You like lake houses and hate historical reenactments? Send a thank-you note; don’t be an arsehole. It’s a win-win.
To be fair, my own journey to an enlightened life was not devoid of stumbling blocks. When I was just starting out, I stopped caring in a haphazard way. I attempted some really high-level NotSorry with regard to my friends and family, such as pre-emptively declining an invitation to a baby’s circumcision ceremony before it had been issued; the boy’s mother was still in labour. I was so eager not to care about religious pageantry that I forgot I do care about my friend’s feelings.
I refined my approach. At the heart of the NotSorry Method is not being rude. After all, I didn’t want to lose friends; I just wanted to manage my time more effectively so I could get greater enjoyment (and less annoyance) out of being with friends. And I found that a combination of honesty and politeness, exercised in tandem and to varying degrees, gets the best results.
You’ll stop worrying about all the things you have to do and start focusing on the things you want to do
I executed this beautifully on what I like to call The Pub Quiz Problem. I have a group of friends who just love pub quizzes. They kept asking me to join them, and I kept making lame excuses not to go. Then I would have to remember what my excuse was lest I get caught out on Facebook during pub quiz night.
But once I embraced NotSorry, instead of racking my brain to come up with yet another lame excuse, the next time they asked, I just said, “You know what? I really don’t like pub quizzes, so my answer to this is always going to be no. I should probably just tell you that now and save us all the Kabuki theatre of invitation and regrets.” It worked like a charm.
Now that my friends know the truth, I feel liberated with a capital L. I was honest and polite, and nobody’s feelings got hurt, so I didn’t have to apologise. I was quite literally not sorry. Plus – major win – I didn’t have to go to the pub quiz in Williamsburg.
The difference between my quality of life five years ago and now is extraordinary, and I owe it all to caring less. Quitting my job was a watershed moment, but one I’d been building up to for quite some time. I identified what things annoyed me – such as commuting and conference calls and corporate bullshit – and rearranged my life accordingly. I didn’t magically snap my fingers and work it all out in an instant, but I gave myself permission to be honest about what I wanted (and didn’t want) out of life. That’s the first step. I wanted more time for pleasure reading (in short supply when reading is your day job); I wanted more time with my husband, who is also a freelancer; and I wanted to be able to work when and how I pleased, including at 2pm in pyjamas with one arm cradling a bag of Doritos.
In fact, one of the first books I read for pleasure after quitting my job was The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up. If you have managed to get this far without hearing about this bestselling ode to decluttering, let me enlighten you. Marie Kondo is a Japanese tidying up obsessive. She has a method that involves keeping only those things that “spark joy” in your life. What remains is then organised in a specific way, under what is called the “KonMari” method.
First I did my sock drawer, which involves getting rid of socks you don’t like and never wear, then refolding the rest to look like little soldiers standing to attention, so when you next open the drawer, you can see all of them in one glance. Within hours, I had also KonMari’d my husband’s sock drawer. After viewing the results, my husband – who’d initially thought I was insane to spend my time organising his sock drawer – was a convert. He did the rest of his drawers and his closet all by himself the very next day.
Allow me to explain why we were so motivated to do this work. Beyond discarding items of clothing we no longer need or enjoy (and therefore being excited about all of our remaining options), we’ve decreased the time spent figuring out what to wear (because we can see everything in a single drawer with one look), nothing gets lost in a drawer any more (because we follow Ms Kondo’s method of standup folding), and we do a lot less laundry (because we haven’t tricked ourselves into thinking we’re “out” of clothes when in fact the good stuff was just crumpled up in the back under the pants that don’t fit). In other words, life is significantly better now that we can see all of our socks. I ran around for weeks evangelising to anybody who would listen (and many who would not).
Suddenly I found myself in a life-changing kind of mood. As I contemplated my exceptionally tidy home, I felt more peaceful, sure. But it was the freedom I felt from leaving a job I wasn’t happy in – and being able to add back into my life people and things and events and hobbies that made me happy – that truly brought happiness. These were things that had been displaced, not by 22 pairs of balled-up socks, but by too many obligations and too much mental clutter. That’s when I realised – it’s not really about the socks, is it?
I had battled anxiety and wedding planning and annoying neighbours, and what brought me to the other side wasn’t a tidy home, but a tidy mind. Now I have a clearer calendar (and conscience), and more energy for the things I truly enjoy doing and the people with whom I enjoy doing them. And such activities no longer include corporate holiday parties, potluck dinners or baby showers.
I’m not sorry.
1 What Other People Think. This one is non-negotiable. All anxiety stems from here.
2 Having a bikini body. The day I stopped caring about how I looked in a bathing suit, it was like a litter of kittens in black leotards had tumbled down from heaven to perform Single Ladies for the sole enjoyment of my thighs and belly.
3 Basketball. I have never enjoyed or understood basketball. I don’t watch it and, when invited, I don’t go to games. My life is no worse for it. You can apply this to any sport or sports team, except the Boston Red Sox, because I said so.
4 Being a morning person. For most of my life I was ashamed of being useless in the early hours, of not wanting to schedule anything before noon, and of frequently arriving just in the nick of time to morning meetings. Society really seems to value morning people and look down on those of us who don’t (or can’t) fall in line. Once I embraced the freelance life, I stopped caring about being a morning person once and for all.
5 Taylor Swift. Nope.
6 Iceland. I’m sure Iceland is a beautiful country, but every time someone starts telling me about plans for their once in a lifetime trip to Iceland, or about how much fun they had in Iceland, or that “the majority of Icelanders believe in elves!” my eyes start glazing over.
7 Going to the gym. I often feel pressure to go to the gym, and then guilt that I never do. By deciding not to care about gym-going, I’m liberating myself from those moments of feeling guilty and inadequate (and fat), and instead joyfully indulging in an extra hour of sleep. I’m reallocating time and reserving energy, and, if you factor in membership fees, I’m saving money, too.
8 Feigning sincerity. I am the embodiment of “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I just don’t fake it.
9 Passwords. I used to feel so much anxiety about personal security, but then I read a number of articles by experts that suggest we’re all one pimply Slavic teenager away from getting hacked anyway, so I thought, maybe I could just use the same password for everything. Would it really matter? I realised I could probably stop worrying about devising a different Alan Turing–approved crypto phrase for my Gap, Asos and Victoria’s Secret accounts.
10 Calculus. This may have been my earliest recorded instance of not giving a fuck. My high-school guidance counsellor said I had to take this class to have any hope of getting into a good college. I thought long and hard, but ultimately determined that I did not care about calculus and could not be bothered. I did not take the class, and I did get into Harvard. You can’t argue with those results.
• This is an edited extract from The Life-Changing Magic Of Not Giving A F**k by Sarah Knight, published by Quercus at £12.99. To order a copy for £9.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com

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