Count Me Out

As every budget keeper or calorie calculator can attest, relentless number crunching can add up to nothing but stress. Here’s how author Helen Schulman learned to stop quantifying everything and found a new, simpler equation for living.

Photo by Jose Luis Pelaez / Getty Images

I don’t count. That is, I don’t count stuff. I used to count stuff a lot: the number of French fries I stole off my husband’s plate at any given dinner and the amount of time I’d need to spend on the treadmill to make up for it the next day; the square footage of a friend’s apartment (its likely purchase price, my host’s presumed salary, and thus the difference between hers and mine); and, especially when my kids were babies, the minutes/hours between the time my husband said he would come home and rescue me and the actual moment when he sauntered through the door. I counted in order to keep track of my deficiencies and accomplishments and then calculate the magic number that would help me reach a particular goal. I counted as a way of life. But for the most part I’ve stopped all that. And while I’m not a big believer in much of anything, I would say that not counting has saved my life.

As a preternaturally anxious person, perhaps I was born to tally. I was also a committed dancer throughout my teens, and like a lot of people studying ballet, I counted the number of classes I took after school and on weekends. I berated myself if I fell below six per week. I also counted fouetté turns and measured the height of my grands battements.

But unlike many dance students, I allowed that rigid form of self-discipline to metastasize to other areas of my life. I sadly counted calories—so automatically that, after a time, anytime food went in, a number instantly flashed in my mind. Once I went off to college, I counted the days until vacation, when I could see my boyfriend from high school again, thinking “25½, 25½, 25½” as I walked across the quad, sometimes even drawing half a line through the calendar back in my dorm room once it was one o’clock in the afternoon—pretty much the opposite of the then popular mantra “Be here now.”

Occasionally this counting worked to my advantage. I calculated my GPA and counted my semesters on the dean’s list, using the numbers to spur me on to greater things. But I sweated far too much if a grade fell below a certain standard, and thus keeping track devolved into self-punishment. Later, when I began to write seriously, I counted pages, rejection letters, and years between books—pretty normal writer stuff, but hell on the heart. When my husband and I first set out to start a family, and had more than a few bumps in the beginning, I became a mathematician of self-torture. Days until ovulation, days after ovulation. Months gone by, years gone by. My friends with children, their children’s ages. My own age creeping upward.