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.