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.

Lessons Learned From My Media Break

During Thanksgiving week, I took seven days off from social media, television, and podcasts. I’ve unplugged from media before with fruitful results. This round was prompted by Jocelyn K. Glei’s course RESET. Glei suggests taking a break from “inputs that play a huge role in the life of your mind” in order to “open up space for new ideas to flow.”

I’ve been writing a book, so I was eager to see if dramatically reducing external inputs could spark creativity and promote productivity. Full confession: I cheated more than once. However, it was still an illuminating experiment. Three observations stood out:

Silence Equals Discomfort

While making lunch, cleaning, or driving, I would normally listen to podcasts or my own music playlists. Once I eliminated these, I did not like the way I filled up the silence by singing the same lines from the same handful of songs over and over. My chattering mind is accustomed to filling in the blank spots. So, I tried listening to classical music to ease the transition. By the end of the week, I was better able to tolerate short quiet stretches, and I started generating ideas in these open windows.

I’ve come to think of this as giving my brain “me” time. The more silence I give myself, the better my mind gets at focusing my scattered mental energy. Like building muscles, developing a deep comfort with quiet time will take dedication and repetition.

Cable News Makes Me Anxious

One night I was meditating upstairs while my husband was watching TV downstairs. I could sense immediately when he switched to cable news by how angry the voices sounded. I know there’s a lot to be mad about in our world, but this shift in perspective helped me realize how unhealthy it is to pump so much tension into my brain every day.

With more time at home this year, my cable news routine had devolved to include watching my favorite news show on the iPad while preparing dinner, and then my husband and I might watch more news in the living room and again in the bedroom before going to sleep. Thanks to my media break, we rarely tune into cable news now, and I feel much calmer. We do listen to a brief news podcast while eating breakfast—just 15 minutes or less compared to the two hours I had been consuming daily.

Media is Like Pecan Pie

We bought a store-made pecan pie for Thanksgiving this year and salted caramel ice cream to go with it. It was delicious, yet I would never think to eat such a decadent desert regularly, let alone multiple times a day. Perhaps I should treat TV, podcasts, and social media more like pie and less like a staple in my diet.

Balance is everything. When I spend less time on screens, I read books, meditate, and exercise more. And I’ve come to the conclusion that social media works best for me as a tool rather than an endless conversation—I have to know why I’m on there.

But you know what? After cheating several nights in a row, I came to accept that my husband and I enjoy watching TV together in the evenings. And that’s ok. It’s also ok for me to skip a night now and then to write or do yoga.

Media and technology add value to our lives, if used mindfully. I’ve learned that occasional breaks shine light on my habits and alert me to how these inputs might be crowding out other positive experiences.

The New Couch

I love analogies and metaphors. By translating abstract concepts into relatable situations, analogies promote understanding. Analogies and metaphors typically work best when they use everyday examples. Like a worn-out couch.

Imagine you have a sofa in your living room that is faded and sagging. It’s uncomfortable to sit on and stuffing is poking out of the arms.

But this couch has sentimental value. You’ve had it for a long time—perhaps it’s the first nice sofa you ever bought, or maybe your grandparents gave it to you.   

You know you need to replace this couch, so if you’re anything like me, you do one of two things…

A) After an embarrassing incident when a visiting relative struggled to extricate themselves from your sofa’s caved-in cushions, you banish it to an extra room or the garage. You now have one chair in your living room and a big empty space. You know you need to go buy a new couch, and you realize that if you keep putting off this task, you’ll be tempted to drag that dilapidated old thing back into the living room. Still, you procrastinate.

B) You go furniture shopping and fall in love with a snazzy new sofa. You purchase it, and the salesperson tells you it will be delivered in four weeks. You have plenty of time to make room for the new couch, right? But you put it off, and the next thing you know the furniture store is calling to set up a time to deliver your new sofa tomorrow, and your old one is still sitting right there.

In both cases, your shabby couch may be a reminder of good times, but it’s not doing its job anymore. At the same time, you have a living room with the appropriate amount of space for one couch. Zero couches will only work for so long, and two couches won’t work at all.

If you haven’t already guessed, the decrepit sofa in my story is a stand-in for any counter-productive behavior that is taking up space in your life. Like, say, social media scrolling, maxing out your credit cards, or gossiping. You may be well aware that you need to scale back or quit this habit entirely. But if you give it up without a plan for how to reallocate all the time and energy it’s been sucking up, you might find yourself right back where you started, like the couch-banisher in scenario A.

Or maybe you do have something you’ve been dreaming about—traveling the world, learning how to play the guitar, or starting a small business. Like the couch-shopper in scenario B, you have to make space in your life for this passion, otherwise where will you put it?

A little over three years ago I realized I was living in scenario B. My writing had been pushed aside while I drank wine and watched TV. I finally had to ditch alcohol and reduce my media consumption to make time for my writing and all the other things I wanted to do.

If you can relate to situation A or B, I’m pretty sure there’s an amazing new couch waiting for you. But you have to do the work of finding it and clearing the way.

The Writer in Me: Hiding No More

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Writing at our window overlooking Lake Linganore, Md.

For many years I hid from becoming a writer. Even when I was in hiding, I was still a writer in my heart and soul. But I was not putting myself out there——and now I know why I was so scared.

To back up a minute: I’ve wanted a career in writing since I was about 10 years old. I majored in creative writing at college and did well in my classes. I wasn’t a prodigy, but I had some skills.

After graduating college, I moved to New York City. In a town full of publishing houses, magazines, newspapers, and ad agencies, I didn’t know what to do with my major. I hadn’t applied myself in school. I didn’t write for the literary magazine or the campus paper. There was nothing to distinguish me from every other person who wanted to write for a living.

I still could have tried to launch a writing career without any credits to my name. But I didn’t.

Flash forward three decades (yes, decades), and I finally decided to do something about my situation. Two years ago, I launched this blog. One year ago, I signed up for a writing program that encouraged me to build my online profile, pitch articles to outlets, and develop a book proposal.

For the first time in decades, I started thinking of myself as a writer with stories and opinions to share with the world, not just a writer inside my own head. I had energy and ideas, and the words started pouring out.

But. (There’s usually a but with me.) Suddenly, I was connected with other writers who seemed so talented and driven. I felt compelled to ask myself: Who am I as a writer? And most importantly: Do I like who I am? Can I live with who I am?

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Display at Great Stuff by Paul Antiques in Frederick, Md.

A few things I am not:

A sassy writer. I am actually pretty funny in person, but I’m not comfortable being humorous on the page—it feels forced.

A lyrical writer. I am not poetic or “dazzling.” I am not a master of metaphor.

A sophisticated writer. I do not have an impressive reserve of literary references. My style is not bold or experimental.

A few things I am:

A relatable writer. Yeah, I’m basic. Ordinary. In a good way, I believe.

An honest writer. I am willing to spill my guts for my readers. And I’m not afraid to get political.

An idea writer. I live to find the ideas at the core of my writing, the concepts that help illuminate our shared humanity.

A readable writer. I enjoy spending time constructing sentences and paragraphs that are clear and flow well.

Are those two lists a bearable trade-off?

Sometimes I read a beautiful or hilarious sentence by a brilliant writer, and I look up from the page or screen. I sigh and wonder if I should try harder to be a different kind of writer.

I never want to give up on becoming a better writer. Honing my existing skills is a must. But can I teach myself to be more poetic? Can I practice putting my wit into words? Can I bone up on literary stuff?

Or, should I spend my energy learning to appreciate who I am already as a writer and finding ways to make that work for me?

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An emphatic sign at Blacksmith’s Garden in Frederick, Md.

This is why I was scared all those years, though I wasn’t fully conscious of it. I was hiding from the pain of my own expectations, my self-judgment, the fear of facing my identity as a writer. And, if I have to be totally honest, the fear of facing my identity as a person. I’ve long been afraid that my authentic self is not cool or classy or intellectual enough to reach some to-be-determined level of success that will validate my worth.

These past few years I’ve been figuring out how to accept myself, to love the woman inside while gently nudging her forward. Because I’ve realized that the validation I so desperately crave needs to come from within.

Recently I ventured a wee bit out of my comfort zone on an essay. The two people I showed it to urged me to make substantial edits. My first reaction was defensive—I wanted to dig in my heels because their input felt like a wallop to my ego. Once I got over myself, and made the revisions, they really paid off. Clearly there is room to stretch within my wheelhouse without having to reinvent myself.

My aim is to elevate my craft while playing to my strengths and exploring my passions. My main goal is to reach people with my writing, help them feel not so alone, and shine light onto interesting paths. As long as I work at doing that, I won’t need to hide anymore.

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Metal flower at Blacksmith’s Garden in Frederick, Md.

Embracing nature, in life and through writing

As I began planning the subjects that I would cover in this blog, the list pretty much wrote itself. Most of the themes that I am addressing have been simmering inside me for months—years even. But I do plan to challenge myself periodically to take on matters that I don’t typically contemplate or put into words. So, here is the first topic from outside my comfort zone… 

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Geoff walking along the path at Lake Linganore, Md.

Naturalist John Muir said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” This is one of the many lessons I’ve learned since moving to a more rural area.

Once upon a time, I was a teenager dreaming of escaping the boring suburbs and living in the big city. At the age of 21, I made this dream come true (with a little help from my friends). For close to eight years, I luxuriated in the civilized nectar that is New York City, and I didn’t think much about the natural world. I liked the look of the big trees in Central Park, but that was about it. I preferred instead to gaze upon the tall buildings and intricate bridges.

I then moved on to the suburban sprawl outside Washington, D.C. These suburbs weren’t quite as dull as the Florida one I grew up in, but they weren’t exactly inspiring either.

The yearning to live in a rustic environment snuck up on me. The seed was planted when we briefly rented a rundown house with a big back yard in a tree-lined postwar neighborhood.

But maybe the desire to be closer to nature is just something that happens as many of us get older, as the years of being out of touch with the earth accumulate? Perhaps it’s related to the search for self, to the desire to be grounded and connected.

Whatever the impulse, I find myself living now on a lake, surrounded by plants and animals and water. Sometimes it feels like I’m inhabiting a classic Disney cartoon.

The squirrels are literally everywhere, and the lake is full of geese and ducks. Sightings of chipmunks are sporadic, but they always provoke a squeal (from me, not them), as they are exceptionally cute and tiny. The rabbits out here are also small, and the raccoons are huge. In late summer the insects are downright prehistoric looking.

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Rooster at England Acres farm in Mt. Airy, Md.

My husband and I find ourselves trying to mimic the distinct songs of our favorite birds. The owls sound like howling dogs. The egrets and other herons are beautiful to observe as they gingerly walk along the lake looking for fish, but their screeches can be terrifying.

We drive by farms every day, where we can see cows, horses, goats, and the occasional herd of alpacas. Deer are ubiquitous. We have a mother deer who sometimes shelters under the trees in our backyard, and we once saw her nurse one of her young in our neighbor’s yard. Bald eagles soar over the lake on rare occasions, and they take my breath away every time.

I’ve fallen in love with how the seasons change and how flowers appear seemingly out of nowhere. The colors, the textures, the shapes—how could one not admire the accomplishment of a perfect flower in bloom?

My favorite sight is the sunlight glimmering on the water. Depending on the time of day or the time of year, the light can look quite different, but it always makes me feel awestruck and at peace. I’ve started using this image while meditating, and it almost always relaxes my chattering, preoccupied brain.

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Kayaking on Lake Linganore, Md.

Of course, even Disney cartoons aren’t all rainbows and roses—just look at Bambi. Nature means life and death, growth and destruction. You can’t drive around in our area without seeing a dead animal on the side of the road. I even ran over a very large raccoon one night, and I’m sure you’ll forgive me for not elaborating on the experience.

We’ve seen the damage that water, wind, and tree limbs can cause. In the ongoing clash between humans and nature, it often feels like nature has the upper hand (probably because it does).

One day I was in the yard, yanking at the ivy that grows everywhere. I was angry at it—the way it spread wherever it wanted, invaded territory without invitation. With perverse pleasure, I jerked another strand out by its root. Why do I hate it so much, I wondered.

Is it because the ivy is bold and remorseless, because it doesn’t need permission to run wild? Is the cautious, timid side of me jealous of the ivy that runs rampant in my yard?

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Flowers in our backyard on Lake Linganore, Md.

That might sound ridiculous, but the more I thought about it, the more I concluded: Nature is just like the people in our lives. Sometimes we love it and want to surround ourselves with it. Other times it drives us crazy, and we wish it would just do what we want it to do.

And maybe that isn’t so unusual, because we are nature and nature is us. Learning to live with nature, and each other, is our only option. It won’t always turn out perfect, but it’s in our best interest to find fruitful ways to coexist. Paying attention and learning from nature might just save us after all.

So, there it is—my first “off-topic” blog post. Not sure yet how I feel about it, but one thing’s for sure…there’s lots of room for improvement! 

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