The Tyranny of Numbers

The balance in my bank account. My body weight on the scale. The percentage on the Kindle screen that shows how far I’ve read in my book. The number of “Zone Minutes” I’ve achieved according to my Fitbit app. The clock, reminding me that I better finish up one task and get started on the next. The current tally of posts I’ve published on my blog so far this year.  

Numbers are everywhere, and if you’re like me, you can get really hung up on them. Paying attention to the time of day, dollar amounts, and other calculations seems like a responsible thing to do. You don’t often hear people warning you off from counting.

So, I was surprised a couple years ago when I read Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life” (written with Mark Reiter). I’ve probably mentioned this before, because it really stuck with me: In the book, among other helpful suggestions, Tharp writes, “For one week, I tell myself to ‘stop counting.’ . . . The goal is to give the left side of the brain—the hemisphere that does the counting—a rest and let the more intuitive right hemisphere come to the fore.”

For me, resisting the pull of numbers goes beyond freeing up the right side of my brain (which it absolutely does). You see, I use counting the way I use busywork and worrying, as a form of procrastination. Sometimes numbers become a deep forest where I let myself get lost while creative endeavors starve.

Lately I’ve been testing out a tracking system I developed for establishing new habits. The key to the system is to keep it as simple and pleasant as possible. At first, I was writing down way too much detail, as I am inclined to do. I became preoccupied with setting time ranges for my walks, which then led me to fixate on my watch, instead of just enjoying that I was getting outside and moving my body.

Numbers are deceptive like that. They promise to lend a helping hand, and before you know it, they are using their power to take up real estate in your head. Sometimes numbers are tools and sometimes they are tyrants. I’ve been known to spend an hour choosing five words to pluck out of a piece I’m writing so it doesn’t exceed some arbitrary word limit I set for myself.

But I’m here to tell you that the power of numbers can be restrained.

I’ve started stripping numbers from my life wherever possible. Obviously, you can’t do this with all figures. You need to make it to your doctor’s appointment on time, and you don’t want to overdraw your bank account. But there are lots of places where focusing on measurement does nothing but feed self judgment and obsession.  

For example, I have stepped on the scale every morning for a very long time. Eight days ago, I decided to take a week off from weighing myself. It was easier than I thought it would be, but you better believe I stepped right back on that scale this morning once the week was up. I’m hoping to take longer and longer breaks in the coming months. And I’m looking for other areas where counting is truly gratuitous.

Wondering where to start? Take a day when you don’t have to be anywhere and try not looking at the clock. It may just blow your mind how little the time matters.

A life with fewer numbers can be a less stressful, more expansive existence.

Procrastination, Priorities, and Vegetable Soup

Let’s say you are making a big pot of vegetable soup. (Yes, it’s analogy time again.) You find a recipe online but decide to improvise—spending an hour inspecting your spice rack. Once you settle on a mix of herbs and spices, you grab whatever bags of veggies you have in the freezer and dump them into the pot.

Your soup may turn out perfectly fine, but most folks would agree that your emphasis on ingredients was misplaced. Flavor enhancements are important, but this is a vegetable soup. You might want to spend more time choosing and chopping fresh veggies if you want a truly delicious soup.

If you want a truly fulfilling life, you must also choose which ingredients (or actions) to concentrate on. For years, my personal priorities were out of whack. I would spend precious time on busywork rather than creative projects.

If you’re anything like me, this train of thought might sound familiar:  I need to write a blog post, but maybe I should put on a load of laundry first. Oh, and now would be the perfect time to rake up those leaves in the front yard. And wouldn’t it be nice to organize that pile of stuff on the coffee table? Laundry’s ready to fold! Ugh, now I’m drained, and I deserve a break. Instead of writing, I’ll just collapse on the couch and watch Netflix.

This was happening over and over again because I was stuck in a loop of focusing on things that were mentally easy to do but still consumed considerable time and energy. It felt good to be crushing it at “adulting”—but this system was leaving me unfulfilled in a larger sense.

Last fall I took a course to help get my life on track and establish a writing practice. In the first phase, we were encouraged to set goals that we could achieve in approximately three months. One of my goals was to write 30,000 words in my book by the end of January.

This goal sounded intimidating, given that I hadn’t written regularly in ages. But if I wrote, on average, five days a week, I only needed to produce 400 words a day over the 15-week period. Totally reasonable!

But to make this happen, I had to stop staring at the spice shelf.

I had to break my habits of:

  • Making meticulous to-do lists for everyday tasks and striving to check off every item
  • Jumping on non-urgent things to get them “out of the way”
  • Turning trivial chores into complicated, time-consuming projects
  • Insisting on doing everything to my standards, by myself

When I felt the urge to procrastinate with busywork, I had to ask myself:

  • Will I get to these chores eventually, even if they’re not on a to-do list?
  • What would happen if I saved this task for later?
  • Am I being paid to perform this chore at a master level?
  • Can someone else help with this task or take it over altogether?

Doing the above was the only way I could make time for my writing. I had to suffer the pain of watching the laundry pile up higher than usual, push past the discomfort of seeing those damn leaves every time I walked in the front door, and learn to ignore the clutter on the coffee table.

And by Jan. 31 I had exceeded my writing goal, pounding out a grand total of 40,060 words. Writing was the star ingredient in my plan, and by placing my attention there, I produced the result I desired.

The Non-Magic of Making and Breaking Habits

Drinking coffee was not a regular thing for me before 2020. Caffeine has an intense effect on my nervous system, so for decades I rarely consumed coffee.

With the pandemic lockdowns, I suddenly had more time each morning, and the soothing ritual of grinding, brewing, and sipping coffee appealed to me. So, I found a local business that roasts flavorful half-caf and decaf blends and started ordering their beans.

This custom became part of my day pretty quickly. Before I knew it, I was already looking forward to my morning cup of joe in the early evening.

My new coffee habit emerged organically, but those that don’t can be challenging to establish.

A couple months ago I decided to initiate a pre-bedtime routine of using the Waterpik, brushing my teeth, and then rinsing with mouthwash. At first, I wondered when this practice would ever become automatic. I resented the extra time and effort it took when all I wanted to do was slide under the covers.

Even now, as the habit is finally taking root, some nights I negotiate with myself: What if I skipped tonight and went to bed with fuzzy teeth? Would just one time hurt?

Once a habit has solidified, it can be tough to quit. Three and a half years ago, I decided to remove alcohol from my life. I hadn’t intended to build a drinking habit, but the ongoing repetition in my late teens and early 20s ensured that it took hold. For decades, I drank several times a week. And then I tried to defy all that training.

At first, there were so many triggers that made me want to drink again. Birthdays and anniversaries, dinners at nice restaurants, Friday evenings after a long week—all of these markers were intimately linked with alcohol. I had to power through each one to break the habit.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I was working on a craft project and out of nowhere came the thought that I should have a drink after I finished.

For most of my adult life, long holiday weekends were for drinking—this pattern included drinking earlier in the day than usual and consuming alcohol for three or four consecutive days (something I didn’t usually do). For me, this merriment typically started off fun but did not end well. Yet here was an echo, surfacing after nearly four sober years, telling me a drink was in order. Talk about power!

For many years, I taught my brain that multiple glasses of wine paired well with talking on the phone with friends, that beer went hand-in-hand with playing darts, that alcohol was part of brunch and eating oysters and dancing at weddings and sitting by the fire.

My mind got the message that numerous activities were not reward enough without a drink before, during, or after. Luckily, this not-so-magical trick is a clue to how we can sever old habits and nurture new ones.

We must look for the associations. They are the support posts that we put down along the way. If we want to disassemble an entrenched habit, we must detach it from these props. We can do this by repeating the action, like eating brunch, without the habit. Remember, this is how we got into said mess, by repeating the activity with the habit.

Our desired new habits will need their own support posts—even something as simple as a time of day, like my bedtime teeth cleaning ritual.

Not all habits will be as immediately pleasant as drinking coffee. But if we tether them to something sturdy, we will persevere.