Why I’m Becoming Less Specific With Numbers

Precise measurement offers momentary insight into how an area of life should change. After a certain amount of information is known, incessant measuring itself becomes a distraction from tasks that have the power to turn a larger vision in the right direction. 

A Brief Love Letter To Math

Math is ancient. Math is a beast. The most revolutionary formulas known to math and science were here long before humans discovered them and they will be here long after we are gone.

Math exists independent of conscious thought. It’s not here to flatter or offend. It’s stoic. It’s running the show.

Occasionally it surfaces to reveal what a striking engine it is for the universe. If you're lucky, you'll realized it's offered you a chance to haphazardly ride along before decomposing you atom by atom.

What Does This Have To Do With My Grocery Bill? 

It took me a while to realize we all form a relationship with the important numbers in our lives.

  • Are you someone who thinks ignorance is bliss?
  • Are you someone evaluating your worth with numbers when you can’t trust your inherent value?
  • Are you someone who has found a middle-ground for operating? Can numbers be a handy gauge but not impact your self-esteem?

Personally, I’ve experimented with a life where numbers are upfront and a life where numbers are in the background.

I’ve obsessed over numbers big and small and then switched to ignoring their presence altogether.

In both cases, numbers intersected with my humanity to impact me immensely. My conclusion? In most cases, less awareness of exact numbers adds up to a more meaningful life. Here’s why. 

Precision Gone Wrong

“At one point, Frank Loyd Wright offered his son John a salary for working as an assistant on several projects. When John asked him to be paid, Wright sent him a bill itemizing the total amount of money that John had cost over the course of his life, from birth to present.

- Give and Take by Adam Grant

Needless to say, I’m not impressed with Wright’s specificity here. In fact, it kind of makes him look like a jerk. Maybe he should have been using his time to meet his contract deadlines instead? (To my own non-jerk credit, I stopped calculating the exact cost of my child after one year. We try to be sustainable, we try to be frugal, and a ballpark estimate is all I need to know in order to confidently meet his needs.)

Things I No Longer Measure

I don’t own a scale. I’m weighed at the doctor’s office and that’s good enough.

I don’t pay attention to the size of my pants. I’m a different size depending on whatever brand wants to flatter me the most. (Have you learned about vanity sizing? It’s where companies try to dupe you into buying their clothes because you can be a smaller size in them.)

I don’t routinely count calories, the items in my house, the number of friends I have, or how many kilometers I’ve scrolled on my phone. 

I wasn’t always this way. I used to cling to numbers to provide meaning in a world of chaos. 

And I still love numbers. But not as much as I love ideas.

Lessons From Numbers: Music and Health

Music taught me a lot about how to operate in the world - math and otherwise. Music theory is a tunnel to move through where both sides are experienced about the same.

If you are operating in a mind where you can trust yourself - if you are operating with a firm understanding of formulas and rules - then numbers provide an underlying framework but they are mostly forgotten.

Numbers often fall into place once a critical threshold of understanding has been met.

Zooming In

When I look back at the use of strict measurement in my life, it was mostly employed during times of terrible functioning. 

In a large number of cases, numbers are viewed at a microscopic level when something is going horribly wrong.

For example, when a human recovers from a terrible health scare, they are weighed frequently. Their temperature, heartbeat, blood pressure, etc. are taken daily for months straight. Numbers are plotted meticulously by professionals on a graph - because something is off.

White blood cell count? The cabin pressure in an airplane? The amount of fuel left in a tank? If I’m being told exact numbers, I should probably be worried. 

And if you hear a musician counting out loud in the middle of a song? Something is probably going wrong.

An Underrated Milesone

When it comes to health and music, becoming less specific with numbers appears to be a milestone to celebrate.

Less specificity represents operating on a higher level of automaticity and integration. This allows the mind and body to create conditions of flow.

Operating with awareness instead of exact measurement communicates a mode of reasonable, responsible, and balanced functioning that doesn’t need to be monitored to be sustained. 

The numbers fade into the background, and something more complete emerges.


"I gaze into the doorway of temptation's angry flame

And every time I pass that way I'll always hear my name

Then onward in my journey, I come to understand

That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand” 

- Bob Dylan

Do you have an area of your life where you’ve become less specific with numbers? What has been the impact on your well-being? Where do you put your attention instead?

Next week, I’ll discuss why systems are more important than exact numbers in many cases. I’ll also rummage through some head games I still play when math is a distraction from meaning.


10 Replies to “Why I’m Becoming Less Specific With Numbers”

  1. we threw out typical “budget” numbers a long time ago when we realized we had enough to cover the bills and to save. i have no idea what my wife spends, for instance. it doesn’t matter to me so long as the basics are covered. just because i write a blog about money doesn’t make me the household spending police.

    i do like tracking health stats like resting heart rate. that’s because i pretend to be an athlete sometimes and if you want to run a certain distance in a certain time you want some hard info on how you’re progressing. however, if i was going to coach a person on a basic level of fitness i would just say “go for about this amount of time and break a sweat or get your heart rate above a certain threshold for most of the time.” don’t worry about the speed or calories. those things will take care of themselves.

    it’s hard not to track hard numbers when you write about investing. you gotta have a scorecard so people believe you.

    1. You make some excellent points Freddy! I like that you don’t track everything your wife spends (that would be creepy and controlling – ha)! Likewise, I trust my husband. I know he doesn’t do anything too wild. No spending police here…

      I keep seeing this overlap with fitness talk and money talk. Like a lot of people, I think it’s been drilled and it can get annoying from a self-improvement perspective if people are talking down to you. There are so many parallels between health and money (in my opinion) because they are systemizing activities. People interested in one are often able to draw parallels to the other because the tracking itself uses a similar method of moving parts, inputs, and outputs. When you zoom out, it’s really a conversation about systemizing psychology. What makes one person happy doesn’t necessarily work for someone else.

      You are right – when it comes to money blogging, it’s great for people to prove their points with exact numbers. I guess I’m just not that kind of blogger. I’m OK with that. I lean towards more philosophical talk, systems, and “live and let live.”

  2. That was an a-hole move that Wright did on his son. It’s like your supposed to pay him back for all the things he bought for him…his son. C’mon man, this is not a friend or coworker!! He may need to separate that frame of mind when it comes to his son, let the numbers fade into background and remember the impact he provides you in your life.
    For me currently, I care less about the tuition I put into my 3 y/o’s preschool and more about what is he getting out of it with what’s he learning and the friendships he is forming. He tells us during the week his interactions with classmates and the activities they are doing in the preschool. He’s building his learning and social skills which what we love.

    1. I learned a lot about Frank Lloyd Wright in that book (Give and Take) that left me quite unimpressed with his character. The way he treated his assistants and co-workers was equally unappealing. I’m disappointed that he is the most famous architect to most people. Boo!!! I’ll be on the hunt now for some truly original (and kind) architects to shine a light on.

      I think you are approaching things in a much healthier way than Wright with your son! I can’t wait until my son can tell me more of his thoughts! He is 20 months old and he is starting to get there! Lots of thoughts about the cat and dog (ha ha).

  3. Love this post!! So much great insight here, and I couldn’t agree more with your rationale.

    Even when it comes to my finances, I find that counting every dollar can really detract from our overall experiences. Whereas being mindful of our spending, and establishing systems on how we approach money allows us much more freedom and simplicity.

    1. Hello Phia! Thanks for weighing in with your experience.

      I think there’s an underlying pressure on bloggers to be exact for the sake of their readers. While I value this in certain areas (say, a remodeling project), I don’t think anyone should feel the need to keep track of every penny if that distracts from larger goals, values, hobbies, etc.

      It sounds like you have found something healthy that works for you and your family. That’s what really matters!

  4. You posted this on the same day I posted a new equation for measuring the relative value of time and money. Sweet irony.

    I’m obsessed with numbers, and track everything in my life. Although I don’t feel like it detracts from my experience, I could be wrong. I think it has more to do with my personality type. But it’s interesting to think about, and I’ll be more aware of the effect that numbers have on my daily routine now. Thanks for this.

    1. Hello Adam! Thanks for stopping by the blog. You certainly do seem like someone obsessed with numbers, and I look forward to checking out your new post.

      I do think “number preoccupation” has a lot to do with personality types and the level of systemizing preferences someone has. There’s certainly no judgment here. If people are happy tracking everything, I think they should do it! I’ve just evaluated it in terms of opportunity cost in my life and also a tendency to cling to things that are easy to measure versus more abstract meaningful things that are difficult to measure. I love numbers and always will, but do I really need to know the cost of every little thing? Probably not.

  5. Fun article. Ms. Fate swears I have “numbers OCD” and to be fair I keep a solid eye on all things financial and other aspects, but not everyday. I pay attention to key health stats, but only on an annual basis. However, I have no idea how much I weigh or calories I eat, just to ease up if my pants are fitting tighter. I can tell you the lifetime average MPG in my car, but not how many miles the tires have in them. I guess I’d put myself in the “I quantify and pay regular attention to those numbers that have a large or somewhat significant impact on my life, but not every single day” camp.

    1. That sounds similar to where I am at with my relationship with numbers. People I’m around often think I’m really into numbers and wonder why I didn’t take more of a math path in life, but after seeing what other personal finance bloggers, health fanatics, researchers, and musicians do, it’s clear to me that I am very middle of the road, and I’ve even eased off from specificity over time. I like writing posts like this to reflect on areas of life I’ve changed my philosophy about. The change kind of snuck up on me. It wasn’t really a decision.

Comments are closed.