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book review

Author Sarah KnightGeorge Townley

I have a friend who is skilled in the fine art of "not giving a f*ck."

For years, I've admired this element of his personality – the way he is able to set clear expectations about what he does and doesn't want to do, and therefore live in a way that brings him satisfaction and joy.

He understands that his time and energy are limited, and he doesn't constantly obsess over what other people do or think. He eats when he's hungry, and goes home when he's tired. And he certainly won't allow other people to push their selfish demands on him.

All of this doesn't mean he's a jerk. In fact, quite the contrary. I would say he is one of the more thoughtful and caring individuals I know. Because he doesn't let obligations and judgments totally dictate his schedule or his emotions, he's able to build a life where he can focus on the things that deserve his attention, and on the people that really matter. Because he makes it a consistent practice to set firm boundaries and articulate personal policies, everyone knows what to expect of him, and respect his wishes accordingly.

While I've long looked at him with admiration, I myself have struggled with caring too much about certain things. I tend to worry more than is appropriate, and drag myself to events when I'd probably be better off at home recharging. I waste a ton of mental space on things I know I shouldn't, and spend time with people I'm not even sure I like. That's why when I saw Sarah Knight had written a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, I was more than a little intrigued.

Knight's comedic how-to guide is a parody of the wildly popular The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, in which Marie Kondo asks her readers to declutter their spaces and sort their socks in pursuit of serenity. Knight's take also deals in a kind of spiritual enlightenment, but with far more wit and profanity. (In a funny coincidence, Knight also wrote a popular essay titled I Quit My Job! And So Can You – a piece that played no small part in my recent decision to leave my day job of seven years.)

In her clearly articulated how-to guide, Knight walks us through making what she calls a "f*ck budget," carefully sorting our current "f*cks given" into categories, and then culling what doesn't really deserve our attention. Her list includes having a bikini body, basketball, being a morning person, Taylor Swift, feigning sincerity, calculus, Google Plus, and Iceland. Mine includes running long distances, Woody Allen's catalogue, keeping up with obscure music, yoga, movies about space, the opinions of Internet trolls, learning how to bake, and Jonathan Franzen.

All of this may seem like a silly exercise, but once you get down to it, there really is some life-changing potential here. When you start apply her principles to, say, the workplace, or your interpersonal relationships, it becomes very clear what matters and what does not. In the process of clearly separating things out, we become less afraid to say no to things that are damaging our productivity, health and happiness. (Think superfluous meetings, dress codes, endless conference calls, the baby showers of people you barely know, meaningless paperwork, and an acquaintance's Wednesday night poetry slam event.)

Of course, opting out does not mean a free pass to being rude – instead it's about understanding that you only have a finite amount of effort to give the world, and that you need to expend that effort accordingly. It's about considering the things you do out of needless obligation, and instead pursuing the things that bring you pleasure. It's about understanding that it's better to spend quality time with the people you love, rather than phoning it in when you feel like you have to. Perhaps most importantly, it's about learning that you'll never be able to control what people think, so why not live well without worrying about their opinions? (I know, easier said than done.)

Before you think that Knight is living in a disrespectful dream world, she thankfully understands that we have to do all sorts of things we don't want to do to grease the wheels of social and professional interaction (and, in the case of work, help us survive.) Instead of suggesting we stop caring completely, the book encourages us to take a long look at whether we really have to, or if we just feel like we do. In fact, when employed correctly, Knight's methods actually have the potential to make you a nicer human being.

I'll admit that applying Knight's principles to my life wasn't exactly easy – it's hard to stop caring about things just because you read a book – but it certainly paid off in noticeable ways. I stopped worrying about the opinion of that guy who insulted me at a party. I missed someone's birthday shindig because I was exhausted, and the world didn't fall apart. When I had some people over for dinner, I didn't frantically clean my house to the point where you could have performed surgery in my kitchen. Most importantly, I stopped agonizing about what everyone else was doing, and focused instead on what I was doing.

The most valuable thing about figuring out what you don't really care about is that it cultivates more space for what you love, something that we're all ultimately looking for. In a world that seems to demand more of our time and attention every day – and makes us feel like we should apologize when we just don't have enough – we could all benefit from a little schooling in the fine art of just "not giving a f*ck."

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