Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

A Beginner's Guide to Fuss Budgeting, Part 2

A radical new approach to time management

In my last article I argued that being obsessive and compulsive is just a disorder when our fuss is misallocated to some futile fuss-object. Invest your obsessive compulsiveness carefully and it’s called being focused, disciplined, loyal and productive. Think of your focused, concentrated attention as your fussiness, and measure fussiness in mind-minutes, the minutes that add up to hours, and ultimately to thousands of hours that you spend on some fuss-object, whether it be as bad as washing your hands over and over, or as good as training to become a medical doctor. 

How do you spend your mind-minutes? John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Kids these days say “YOLO”—you only live once, you’ve got one life’s mind-minutes to allocate? How do you want to spend them?

To some extent, by planning more conscientiously and realistically, we can counter the tendency for our lives to just happen. We can budget our fuss but few of us do. Few of us even notice that life planning comes down to fuss budgeting. Few of us even notice where we’re spending our mind-minutes.

Meditators mind their mind-minutes as they sit there watching their thoughts pass through the stream of consciousness. Maybe they could even give you an estimate of how much time they spend fussing over their different fuss-objects while meditating:  “Ten percent on chores, 15 percent on recent conflicts, 20 percent on work, 10 percent on shopping, 25 counting breaths... “

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But the last thing meditators are trying to do is manage their fuss budgets. To them a thought is a thought. Their mind-minutes are investing in learning how to drop all thoughts and return to a quiet fuss-free state, letting all fuss-objects come and go.

Fuss budgeting is more like microeconomics than meditation. It’s a lot like managing a regular budget.

As with a money budget, you’ve got the mind-minute equivalents to petty cash, attention to this and that doesn’t amount to real fuss. Then you’ve got the fuss-objects you want to invest in, the fuss-objects you’re obligated to invest in, the fuss-objects that are so tempting you can’t resist investing in them even though you wish you wouldn’t, and the fuss-object you wish you wanted to invest more in but don’t. In other words:

Discretionary fuss-objects: The fuss-objects you choose to give a lot of attention to because they’re fun in the short run and, by your own standards, good long-term investments—a rewarding romantic partnership, strong friendships, a job, hobby or self-discipline that you love and are glad you're getting around to.

Obligatory fuss-objects: The fuss-objects you give your focused attention to just because you have to or at least think you have to, even though you wish you didn’t—a time-consuming, mind-numbing job that just pays the bills, your chores, or your responsibilities to people you wish you didn’t owe things to.

Tempting fuss-objects: The fuss-objects you can’t resist even though you don’t like wasting time on them, the stuff of OCD and other productivity-reducers—drugs, alcohol, TV, overeating, vicious cycle-fights with your partner, water-under-the-bridge regrets, or missing people it’s high time you got over.

Aspirational fuss-objects: The fuss-objects you know would be good investments but don’t feel fun to do—skills you know you need to learn even though learning them is boring, or health practices that you really should get around to but don’t.

One way to think about these categories is to notice the difference between wanting to do and wanting to have done something. Some people want to exercise, and some just want to have exercised. Some people want to write a book. They like the actual mind-minutes they spent at it. Others would like to have written a book, but don’t like spending the mind-minutes.

                                   Want to do                            Want to have done

Discretionary                Yes                                      Yes

Obligatory                     No                                        No

Tempting                      Yes                                      No

Aspirational                  No                                         Yes

As with money budgeting, the main advantage of fuss budgeting is that you can see the tradeoffs between options you might otherwise evaluate independently.  When considering a potential fuss-object, instead of saying “Sure, why not?” “OK, if you want me to,” or “I’ll do it because it has advantages,” you’re forced to say, “Compared to what? What does fussing over this cost me in fussing over other things?”

Fuss budgeting is forward planning. You want to fuss today over what paid off tomorrow. Your goal is to move as much of your fuss toward fuss-objects in the discretionary and aspirational categories.  Since there are only so many minutes in a day, where can you get those minutes? Obviously by wresting minutes away from your obligatory and tempting fuss-objects. Fuss budgeting can motivate us to ask, “Do I really have to spend the time I do on my supposed obligations?” and “Is there anything more I could do to stay away from my tempting fuss-objects?”

Now you might think, “What’s wrong with tempting fuss-objects? What’s wrong doing what’s fun today even if it doesn’t pay off tomorrow?” The answer is nothing, so long as tomorrow you want to have done it.  I’m glad for some, not all, of the things I did in the past just for the immediate fun of them. Those immediate-gratification fuss-objects of yesteryear fall into my discretionary, not my tempting budget categories.

Fuss budgeting is especially important in modern times. In the past it took less time to master things, and there were far fewer fuss-object to choose from. It’s a myth that all mastery takes 10,000 hours. It may take 10,000 hours to become a top-flight athlete, musician or professional.  It doesn’t take 10,000 hours to master basket weaving. Today, many desirable skills take myriad mind-minutes to master. And we all have so many fuss-objects to choose from. We need to be able to corner ourselves with the tradeoffs. Can you really afford to both raise kids and become a doctor?  To live in a mind-consuming marriage and succeed at work? These are the questions that fuss budgeting forces you to answer.

About aspirational fuss-objects, people say, “no pain no gain,” tomorrow you’ll be glad you did it, even though it’s painful today. Since modern mastery takes so many mind-minutes, “no pain; no gain” is truer than ever. But don’t confuse this for “If pain; then gain.” Sometimes people say, “If it hurts it must be good for me.” Though it takes a lot of sometimes undesirable fuss to get good at difficult skills, not every fuss-object we fuss over is worth the effort.

Fuss hard but fuss frugally.

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

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