Eight ways to calm your mind with numbers

When I’m stressed or worried about something, I find that counting or doing calculations in my head helps to redirect my thoughts. Numbers are also an easy way to quickly recall techniques that reduce anxiety. Here are a few examples.

1.) 1 minute of self-improvement

A friend told me about the Japanese principle of kaizen, which is practicing something for a single minute every day – whether it’s doing push-ups or learning a new language. The point is to establish a habit and make the activity automatic so you don’t have to use willpower to do it. Even one minute is enough to increase your motivation and alleviate guilt. So rather than promising yourself you’ll put in extra time tomorrow, just do one minute today, and tomorrow you can always do more.

2.) 5 daily recollections

These 5 daily ‘subjects for contemplation’ from the Upajjhatthana Sutta may sound a bit gloomy, but they can help to put things in perspective, and remind you of the bigger picture – in other words, life is short and precious, so don’t sweat the small stuff. They are: 1. I’m of the nature to become old; I cannot avoid ageing. 2. I’m subject to illness and injury; I cannot avoid these things. 3. I’m of the nature to die; I cannot avoid death. 4. Everything dear and delightful to me will change and vanish. 5. I am the owner of my actions and heir to my actions. I heard these on Tara Brach’s podcast, which I recommend listening to especially when you’re stressed. She has guided meditations too.

3.) 10 minutes of creativity

I came across this suggestion in Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones: At the top of a page, record the time, and start writing. Don’t stop for ten minutes. Don’t edit or pause. You can write more if you want, but not less. You can throw the writing away or keep it. Try to do this every day. I started doing this a year ago, and have since filled several notebooks. Some days I still only manage ten minutes, but there are days I’ll write for hours. You could do this with any other creative activity.

4.) 10 new ideas

This suggestion is from James Altucher, and you can read about how it will change your life here. Every day, come up with ten new ideas. Ten ways to make money. Ten ways to improve your daily routine. Ten books you’d like to write. And if you can’t think of ten, he says, write twenty. Anything goes. The point is not to come up with only good ideas, but to get better at generating them, so that when things go wrong you are more able to come up with solutions.

5.) 16 minutes of HIIT

Just one weekly session of high intensity impact training (HIIT) has a significant effect on reducing anxiety. (Apparently more than two sessions a week is counter-intuitive.) You can start off with four repetitions and adjust the intervals as you get fitter. This is what I do (I use an exercise bike): 30 seconds of full-on sprinting followed by 90 seconds of slow pedalling. I always feel calmer and clearer after a session, and just a few months of doing this had a big effect on my weight and fitness too.

6. ) 17 syllables

In Natsume Soseki’s Kasamakura, he talks about how creating a haiku is guaranteed to improve any mood. ‘Put your anger into seventeen syllables,’ he says. ‘No sooner do you do so than your anger is transformed. You cannot be angry and write a haiku at the same time. Or say you weep a little. Put those tears into seventeen syllables and there you are, you are immediately happy.’ I’ve tried it, and it’s true. Focusing on fitting your thoughts into 17 syllables does, as Soseki says, help you ‘become calm and detached’.


Kenji Asazuma, Natsume Soseki, gouache on paper (2014)

7.) 20 seconds of presence

Twenty seconds of pausing to breathe and become aware of your surroundings – sights, smells, sensations in your body – is all it takes to positively change your brain chemistry. Meditating for longer periods is great too, but the more you can fill the day with these micro-meditations, the more you can begin to live in the present rather than being stuck in thoughts of past and future.

8.) 30 days of gratitude and service

Feeling grateful and helping out has also been shown to have a positive effect biochemically. Gratitude deconditions your mind from thinking something is wrong with the present moment. There are many ways of doing this, from giving compliments to expressing appreciation. It’s also taking a moment to acknowledge the things you sometimes take for granted. This could also include problems you’ve solved or challenges you’ve overcome. We often go straight from worrying about one thing to another, without stopping to appreciate just feeling okay. Writing these down for 30 days gets you into the habit of thinking this way.

Pick a number

I’ve found that it’s when I’m most stressed that I least want to do the things that make me feel better, so reminding myself to pick one of these numbers really helps to get me into a better frame of mind.

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