It began with swimming, I think. The thing about being underwater, obviously, is that you can’t really have anything electronic on your person. No mobile to fill the idle moments with noise and work. No headphones to block out the world with music or other voices. No display breaking down half an hour or so of front crawl into minutes and seconds, calories and distance.
This is going to be boring I think. But it isn’t.
It takes a while for my brain to quiet down but it does eventually. I focus on my breath and the mindless, mechanical movement through the water. The London rush hour is above my head but feels a million miles away. Forty minutes glides past, quick and quiet like a river. When I get out of the pool my head is clear. It feels amazing. So I decide to stop counting.
When did we start counting everything? Not just minutes and hours but the spaces in between. We keep inventing new things to count: friends and likes, followers and favourites. Food no longer just consists of calories - it is now calculated by each of its constituent parts - protein, fat, carbs (‘macros’). Alcohol comes in units, to be monitored weekly. Each glass of water joins the running tally towards a daily total, a piece of fruit is one fifth of what you should consume each day. Your e-reader displays the percentage of each book completed. Exercise and sleep are tracked assiduously, hour by hour via apps and wrist monitors. Even showbusiness isn’t exempt - celebrities had fans - how nebulous! Now ‘influencers’ tot up their worth precisely - by ‘reach’ and ’engagement’.
There’s something vaguely mad about the way we’re monitoring the minutiae of our lives - slicing every element into ever-smaller shreds
I’m not denying that a lot of this is useful. Of course it is a tremendous boon to have an app that tells you when your next period is due, a clear measure of which food is most nutritious, or a mechanic to assess which member of One Direction is the most popular (Harry). But. There’s something vaguely mad about the way we’re monitoring the minutiae of our lives - slicing every element into ever-smaller shreds. Something weird about our determination to measure and monitor everything - each of us like Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit hurrying after his pocket-watch. Always late, but for what?
I wonder who or what we are doing all this counting for. As a small, Catholic child I did endless Rosaries - holding a bead at a time as I prayed for an ever-increasing list of dead relatives and acquaintances, pleading for the safety of my family, friends and pets until one day my Mam overheard me and took the list away. She promised she would pray for everyone on my behalf. I didn’t have to worry about it any more. I was much happier.
Are we so different now? Tracking every action, weighing our ‘good’ behaviour in the hope that by accumulating enough we will find fulfilment, keep ourselves and the people we love safe from painful experiences like illness or unhappiness. If we just eat the right things, sleep the right amount, work hard, exercise and post happy photographs we’ll never get sick, or divorced, or die… We know it doesn’t always work. Life teaches us that. Perhaps counting keeps that truth at bay.
I’m strict with how I spend my time - but I don’t want a life that is merely quantifiable. Being alive is a qualitative experience. Three minutes spent listening to Debussy are different to three minutes listening to The Birdie Song. Running on a treadmill is different to running as fast as your legs will carry you into the sea. There is room for both, but here’s the thing - there is room for more of both…if you stop counting so much.