The Modern Survival Guide #3
This is an entry in the Modern Survival Guide series, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. These are my opinions, and you read further at your own peril of absorbing my worldview. You have been warned.
So far these essays have been heavy on recommending that people do a lot of thinking and considering. And that’s never a bad start, but here’s the thing: you can’t do it all at once. You can try; lots of people try. They’re the ones who end up on some sort of mood- or attention-altering drug to try to keep pace, or burning themselves out and having a heart attack at age 40. But it’s far easier, and more conducive to survival in the modern world, to ration the things you allow yourself to care about on a daily basis — and be OK with the fact that you can’t care about everything.
Some time ago, I came across the concept of “care calories.” Counting care calories is a lot like counting normal calories while you’re on Weight Watchers: you’re given this many each day, and that’s it. As far as care calories are concerned, this represents the number of things you can give a shit about each day before your brain gets tired and wants to relax for a while. Different people have different levels of care calories, just like different people have different metabolisms. I’ve known people with near-endless wells of care calories, and I’ve known people who use the phrase “I just can’t even” six or seven times a day. The point is, care calories differ between people and between different times of life. And that’s OK.
By this time I assume you’ve figured out that I’m talking around the concept of stressors. Stressors are things on which you have to expend care calories; once you’re out of care calories you start experiencing stress. Stress is bad. Read the article on the link if you don’t believe me.
Part of the key to surviving in the modern world, both in the gross physical sense and in the mental sense, is to manage stress effectively. Remember the discussion back in #1 about the power of words to nail down concepts? Well, “care calories” are an example of that. I’m using those words to provide the mental structure to manage stress. Because once you have a concept label for a phenomenon, you can start deliberately tracking instances of it.
This can be done in a mindful way by simply going through your daily life and keeping track of which things stress you. Write those things down. Then make a note when you get to the “I can’t even” stage each day (if you get there at all — it’s fine if you don’t on any given day). Do that for a few days. Then look at your notes and see what happened. In all likelihood, you’re going to have a few days every week when you hit the “fuck it” button and make a note that you just can’t even anymore. Congratulations; you’ve found your care calorie limit.¹
Now you’re armed with information, and you can start planning accordingly. If your kid throwing a fit is the final straw after a stressful day, that means you need to find time during the day to de-stress, because, let’s be honest, your kid is probably going to keep throwing fits for a while. If you’ve hit your care calorie limit on the day when you were going to ask your boss for that raise, maybe put that conversation off for a day. Your boss will still be there in the morning.
The point is, this is a technique for finding your trigger points and, where possible, figuring out how much you can take before you snap.
You can also use this type of technique to find out what happens when you snap. Just write down what you want to do, more than anything, immediately after you hit the “I can’t even” stage (possible answers include, but are not limited to: sleep, eat, have sex, watch TV, and/or kill something; we tend to get atavistic as a species in stressful moments). This can be a revealing time for anyone’s psyche.
And finally, you can think of care calories as a way to know when you just can’t be bothered to give a crap about looking up counterarguments to your racist high school acquaintance's Facebook posts. You can realize that, today, you just don’t have it in you to fill out that job application. You can acknowledge that it’s just not a good night to have that discussion with your spouse about how to fix the roof. And that’s all OK.²
Once you have your care calorie info, you’ve got a little more insight and control over your life. Not a lot, mind you; stressors are still going to happen. But maybe enough control that you can make some changes and manage your stress just a little better. And just maybe, you can avoid some of the more life-ruining pitfalls that come with managing stress poorly.³
¹I’m not saying that you should try to actually quantify care calories, although go right ahead if you want to give it a shot. I am saying that this is a tool for you to keep track of stuff that burns your ability to tackle stressors, and by doing so, identify your stressors and think about them in ways you might not have before.
²As long as you remember that there are things that have to be done at some point, and then understand that you may have to ration care calories in order to do those things.
³I.e., narcolepsy, binge eating, bad sex, reality television, and/or murder.