Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

A Beginner's Guide to Fuss Budgeting, Part 1

Obsessive-compulsive is only a disorder when you fuss over the wrong things

Occasionally students take me aside to disclose that they suffer from ADD or some other learning disability. I’ve had a few disclose that they have obsessive-compulsive disorder which can be a bit ironic when I’m grading their papers. 

See, I teach and promote obsessive compulsivity. When teaching writing, for example, I’m trying to get my students to fuss obsessively over the tiniest prose details. I aim to cultivate in them a compulsion to improve their papers until the due date when I wrestle their obsessions free from their fussy fingers. 

What makes OCD a disorder isn’t the obsessive compulsive fussiness but the activity all of the fuss is directed at. Call it the fuss-object, which in the OCD victim’s case is some futile, destructive, unproductive, mind-consuming task like counting tiles, closing doors or washing hands. 

But we all have our fuss-objects, the people, projects, practices, worries, beliefs, questions and campaigns to which we devote our most concentrated and persistent attention. There’s nothing wrong with fuss. There’s plenty wrong with some fuss-objects. 

Fuss by other names smells much sweeter. We call it love, devotion, commitment, dedication or investment. Invest your attention in worthy fuss-objects and the dividends are great.  Invest in unworthy fuss-objects and your investment becomes a disorder, an addiction.

Some say that Secret is that get more of whatever you fuss over.  If you fuss over becoming a success you’ll automatically become a success. If you fuss over global warming you’ll get more global warming. 

That’s not true. What is true is that whichever fuss-objects you fuss over, you’ll get less of other fuss-objects. Your obsessive-compulsive attention is a limited resource. Your fuss is finite.

What’s also true is that you’ll adapt to whatever you fuss over. Think evolution.  Think of your fuss-objects as like a creature’s habitat.  The longer the creature lives in a certain habitat the better adapted he is to it, his habits tuned to what works within habitat.  

Fuss is habit forming in two related ways.  The longer you fuss over some fuss-object the more tailored your behavior becomes to working efficiently with that fuss-object, and the more efficiently you work with a fuss object, the more it becomes your comfort zone, the habitat where your habits work and therefore where you’re likely to stay.

Fuss over a language and it will become second nature. You’ll become fluent in it and you’ll gravitate to people who speak it.  Fuss over a professional skill, and you’ll become better and better at it, and less willing to take a job doing something else.  Fuss over a sport or musical instrument and you’ll make playing it look easy and you’ll want to keep playing it. 

Not all fuss pays off in such productivity.  Fuss over winning the approval of an idiot and you’ll learn idiot habits that will serve you poorly elsewhere making you want to stay with the idiot.

And with plenty of fuss-objects you can’t tell how they’ll end up.  Fuss over the problems in your partnership and they might escalate, your hearts rubbing each other the wrong way until they’re as raw as an OCD hand-washer’s hands.  But sometimes all that fuss pay off, you and your partner habituated to each other’s quirks creating a cozy little comfort zone, an uneasy habitat turned into hearth and home.

Fuss involves both thought and action, but for simplicity let’s measure it as thought.  The currency of all fuss budgeting from work to worry, practice to partnership is mind-minutes, minutes you spend focused on one fuss-object or another. 

You’ve probably heard that becoming an expert at something takes 10,000 hours. That’s 600,000 mind-minutes—a whole lot of obsessive-compulsive behavior. 

Set aside eight hours for sleep, an average size life contains 26 million mind-minutes, which, if allocated to nothing but developing expert habits affords you the opportunity to become an expert in 43 different fuss-objects.

Of course that’s a totally unrealistic idealization. Think of all the mind-minutes we spend as petty cash, a little of this, a little of that.  Think of how many fuss-objects your parents and teachers exposed you to that you never gave the requisite mind-minutes.  I made lanyards at summer camp but I never became an expert.

We fuss where we fuss, most of us not particularly conscious about our finite allocation of mind-minutes.  We follow our nose into and out of various fuss-objects. We could budget our mind-minutes more consciously, and compare budget to actuals: how we’d like to spend to how we do spend. That is, we could fuss budget.

In my next article I’ll talk about the practicalities of fuss budgeting.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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