Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 14

Top 5 Arbitrary Numbers

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com. Today I've been asked to talk about "top 5." So I'm going to talk about my top five arbitrary numbers.

I'm not doing this just to be a smart ass.

You see, the one thing that every self help guru can agree on is that you have to have an arbitrary number in your system. It's the one constant in this field. I'm not going to go into the profound psychological reasons why arbitrary numbers are so compelling, I'm just going to take that as a given. I'll just observe in passing that it is a little weird that the most rational concepts we have available to us -- numbers -- are so irrationally inspiring. But it clearly is the case. From the mysticism of Pythagoras to the Christian doctrine of the trinity to the seven habits of dr. steven covey to the cover of Oprah magazine to my mandate for this podcast, number is an attractive and motivating force. I don't mean to suggest that this irrational power of number is a bad thing. It's a little strange, and it's probably good to be aware of and smile at this strangeness, but it's real and it's powerful, so use it to your advantage.

The precision of number gives us a feeling that a great big mess has been ordered. It gives us a handle on chaos -- even if it's just an emotional handle. And it does this even though we know the number itself often doesn't really make much of a difference. Does the sevenness of "the seven habits of highly effective people" have any significance? I've never actually read the book, but I doubt it. It's like we abstract the feeling of precision from the number and discard its actual precise value. We look at three or seven, and we don't see threeness or sevenness, we see precision, we see order. But we need some specific number to get that feeling. We can't just say "the numerous habits of highly effective people." We need the seven. Or thee. Or nine. It has to be something. And certain numbers are more attractive than others.

Which brings me to my top five. So what are my favorite arbitrary numbers for self help? In no particular order: 14, 21, 7, 12, and 3. 5 sadly, did not make the list. 14 is my favorite, both because it's my only non-conventional choice, and because it's the only one that has a sense of humor about its role. It's self consciously arbitrary. For me, that humor makes it even more powerful, but if you don't have much of a sense of humor, you may want to stick with a more traditional choice. I have been amazed at the seriousness with which shovelglove's 14 minutes of schedualistically insignificant time have been debated on various bulletin boards on the web. I've been tempted to intervene at times... but it's kind of like if you have to explain a joke...

OK, so I already talked about 14 and 21 in previous podcasts: 14 minutes of schedulistically insignificant time for shovelglove, and 21 days of habit formation. I won't repeat myself here.

I'll just point one more thing out regarding 14. I'm not sure how many of you have noticed this, but, by pure coincidence, I didn't intend this, the nosdiet has 14 words. I've often considered knocking out the word "sometimes," because it isn't really logically necessary, and it verges on the overly cute, but that would leave us with 13 words, which isn't big on anyone's top 5, except maybe devil worshipers. So shovelglove and the nosdiet have this profound numerological connection. Completely insignificant, but impressive nonetheless.

Another number I like is 7. And I'm certainly not alone -- it probably the most traditional lucky number, and the all time favorite of self help authors. It's a factor of my other favorites, 14 and 21. I like it because it's the number of days in a week. And a week is a very useful scale on which to impose order. N days and S days, for example. So whenever I use the number 7 to order my habits, I'm reminded to consider this naturally occurring seven that's built into the calendar. And the authority of the calendar 7 rubs off even when the particular seven I'm using has nothing to do with days of the week.

Another number I like is 12. Also a traditional favorite. 12 apostles. And it also has calendrical significance. 12 months in a year. A month is also a great scale on while to impose order. I have a system I call "monthly resolution" which I'll talk about in a future episode.

Finally 3. Except for 14, I guess all my favorites are pretty conventional. But again, I have a personal connection to 3. The habit traffic light has 3 states: red, yellow, green. failure/exempt/success. I have another system that I haven't talked about yet called Personal Olympics, which has three levels of success: bronze, silver, gold. Three is simple enough to be easy to deal with, but just complicated enough to deal with sophisticated problems. You can see the world in black and white and one shade of grey. High, decisive contrast, but some flexibility.

That's it. Five and 10 didn't make it. I think the problem is they're too convenient. Five fingers on one hand, 10 on both. It's like you grabbed the first number that was lying right in front of you. Not motivationally impressive.

I've done absolutely no research in coming up with the numbers for today's podcast. I'd be curious if anyone ever did a scientific study as to what arbitrary numbers actually appear most frequently in self help titles. But, at present, like just about every other self help guru, I have no idea. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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