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Shanée Benjamin for Vox

The case for caring less

“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is actually great advice.

To say that our plates are full would be an understatement. The reality of contemporary living requires our attention and efforts be divided between demanding jobs, essential familial caregiving, replenishing social gatherings, and fulfilling political and community engagements — not to mention any hobbies or creative endeavors. According to Pew Research Center surveys, 60 percent of adults said they were sometimes too busy to enjoy life. Busy-ness, unsurprisingly, intensifies once you have kids: 74 percent of parents with children under the age of 18 reported being too busy to enjoy life.

There are a number of reasons people pack their schedules. Hustle culture has normalized always-on, blind ambition; society still expects women to balance the pressures of work and home life; people pleasers have difficulty saying no. Existential fears of climate change, political turmoil, and economic strain perhaps weigh less heavily when you’re distracted by a never-ending to-do list.

“We’re socialized,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Mona Eshaiker, “to care and to provide and to help. If we do it without boundaries and without limits, we’re going to be burnt out and then we’re not doing anybody any favors.”

The myth of perfectionism keeps many in a cycle of feeding into external pressures: the illusion of “having it all,” gleaning self-worth from the validation of others. Of course, it is worthy and noble to be passionate about people and causes you care about. It’s also easy to fall into the trap of attempting too much in the pursuit of trying to have it all.

Instead of being everything to everyone and everything all the time, what would life look like if you cared a little less? “What if,” says Deborah J. Cohan, professor of sociology at University of South Carolina Beaufort and author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption, “we aim for good enough?”

Manage your personal expectations

Much of our desire to take on extra tasks and responsibilities comes from a sense of obligation to others, experts agree, but even that can be self-directed. “Seventy-five percent of the time, the guilt is coming from inside the house,” says Sarah Knight, author of a series of “No Fucks Given” guides, including The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck and Get Your Shit Together. “You are making it up in your own head.”

No one’s expectations of you are as high as your self-imposed expectations. If you feel guilty about bringing store-bought pasta salad to a barbecue instead of a homemade dish, the only person who is going to shame you for that is yourself. While turning down additional responsibilities at work because your plate is already full can feel like you’re dropping the ball, most likely the asker will quickly find a volunteer who is more than eager to take on the extra project. “Nobody’s mad,” Eshaiker says. “People don’t want us to feel pressured, either, or stressed.”

Before making a decision about whether to care a little less or to turn down a favor that’s asked of you, Knight says to ask yourself whether saying no would have a negative effect or comes from a mean-spirited place. “RSVPing no to a party is not an objectively bad thing,” she says. “Saying yes and then canceling at the last minute — not because you legitimately got food poisoning but because you never really wanted to go … that’s something you can feel guilty about. Don’t do that.”

Find your priorities

Caring less doesn’t mean negligence. To care less about inconsequential matters, you need to zero in on what is worth caring for. Consider taking stock of to-do list items and obligations and asking if these responsibilities make your day feel more spacious or more confined, Cohan suggests. Does it nourish your sense of creativity? Is it the best use of your time and talent? Does it make you feel exhausted? Do you want to spend your time and energy on this?

Eshaiker says to ask yourself, “Why do I care?” about various aspects of life. “Is this something that is aligned with my values?” she says. “Is this something that I believe is helpful for myself and for humanity?” If you feel compelled to care about something out of fear or wanting to be accepted by others, it may not be worth placing emphasis on it.

Of course, there are nonnegotiable obligations — the basic functions of your job, caring for children, paying bills — which may not be life-affirming but require attention nonetheless. Once you define these true commitments, you can “divorce yourself from the concept of ‘I have to do it,’” Knight says, when it comes to other tasks you thought essential, like waking up at 5 am to do laundry when doing it after work will suffice.

When Knight quit her job as a book editor in 2015, she realized what Marie Kondo advocated for in terms of physical organization, Knight was doing to her brain: eliminating the habits and people that no longer sparked joy. Think about the instances you really didn’t enjoy or that made your life more difficult — such as attending a casual friend’s bachelor party when you really wanted to catch up on reading instead. When similar opportunities arise, you can confidently turn down things you know won’t serve you, Cohan says.

Just because you excel at something — be it creating detailed spreadsheets or making complicated desserts for dinner parties — doesn’t mean you have to agree to it every time you’re asked or volunteer to do it to impress others. “Even though I know I can make the really great, complicated cake — I’ve made them, I’m good at it,” Cohan says. “But it doesn’t mean I have to do it because maybe it’s not the best use of my Saturday.”

Zoom out

In the thick of the daily grind, minute conflicts can often get blown out of proportion: Your kid didn’t do the dishes when you asked, you were 10 minutes late to a doctor’s appointment, a friend forgot she was supposed to bring snacks to game night. People are quick to ascribe meaning to these ordinary events — jumping to conclusions and thinking a friend is inconsiderate, say, by not answering your phone call in the middle of a workday. If you pause and take a step back, none of these things actually have a profound bearing on your life, Eshaiker says. Say you find yourself constantly wrapped up in drama — consider asking yourself why you’re stimulated by the excitement of conflict or which big life decisions you’re trying to distract from. “Sometimes not reacting is the best thing to do,” she says.

The same thing goes for work. Many people’s value and self-worth is intrinsically tied to their jobs. But if you zoom out and consider who you are outside of your job, you may realize other areas of life where you might be lacking, like spending quality time with family or practicing art or music — parts of life you decided you want to prioritize.

When you’re constantly stressed and in a fight-or-flight state of mind, finding this perspective is difficult, Eshaiker continues. Every minor issue feels like an urgent fire needing to be extinguished. Instead of making mountains out of molehills, Eshaiker suggests getting to the root of why you’re negatively fixated on the outfit your partner decided to wear to a wedding, for example. “Is it because I want my partner to present well in public because then I want to get approval from others?” she says. “But that has nothing to do with my ultimate values and my goals. Again, you’re just giving up your power to other people if it’s about external validation in some way.” Relinquishing the perceived influence onlookers have over your life frees up space for you to care about things that actually matter.

In order to get to a place where you’re able to look at the bigger picture, Eshaiker says you need to prioritize rest and centering yourself, which looks different for everyone: meditation, taking a walk, no email before bed.

Set boundaries

Once you’ve defined what is and isn’t worth your time, you’ve got to set, and express, boundaries. Boundary-setting can seem like an amorphous buzzword, but it isn’t as simple as learning how to say no. According to Knight, boundary-setting is outlining what you need and what is important to you and protecting those desires. This can be as simple as writing a list of things that make you happy (reading, going to the gym, cooking, a life with minimal stress), allow you to earn a living (your job), and other areas of importance (friends, family, getting a good night’s sleep).

Then ask yourself what you need to do to protect these things. Maybe you decline invites to weeknight social activities in order to prioritize good sleep. Perhaps you need to spend less time with a friend who invites conflict.

“If they really sit down and think about it for five minutes, they’re gonna realize the biggest, unwanted drain on their time, energy, and money,” Knight says. “It could be a relationship in their life — it could be a parent, it could be a friend, someone they’re dating — and that the boundary that you need to set to preserve your time, energy, money, sanity, mental health, is to basically fence that person outside of all of that.”

Another way to set boundaries, Knight says, is to ask yourself, “What’s wrong with my life?” and then to identify why. For example, you might feel depleted after hanging out with a certain friend. Why? Are you giving more than they’re willing to reciprocate? Do you no longer have much in common? “It all comes down to identifying what you want, the need, what’s important to you, and then what you have to do to protect those things,” Knight says.

Time is finite and shouldn’t be dictated by others or how you believe others to perceive you. If caring a little less means not immediately volunteering to lead every new initiative at work or skipping a few PTA meetings, you’re saving time and energy for the things that matter.

“It’s like trimming the fat,” Cohan says, “off of a day or a week.”

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