Why Focus on the Numbers?
I’ve heard the question in various forms over the past couple of years: Why not just travel around the world without trying to go everywhere—in other words, why focus on the numbers?
My answer is that the numbers give you a goal—something to keep in mind as you go through a challenging process. The numbers can’t be your sole motivation or identity, but they can be a big help.
Pursuing something meaningful and keeping track of it with numbers is fun and addicting. The numbers help to keep things in context. In my business I have goals based on numbers (sales per day, for example). For the blog I have goals based on numbers (new readers joining every day, for example). I don’t do the work for the sake of the numbers, but the numbers provide a good benchmark.
Numbers also make the project more interesting to others. In my case, no one would care if I wanted to visit “as many countries as possible.” Come on. We need a goalpost! 192 is the goalpost—not just “a bunch of countries,” but all of them.
Thomas Hawk has a goal of publishing one million processed photos. Nearly all of them are released to the world under a Creative Commons license, and they’re all good photos too. Why one million? Because it’s an audacious number, which makes it compelling to Thomas and interesting for those of us who are following along.
Sean Aiken worked one job a week for 52 weeks across Canada. Isn’t that interesting? I think so. What if he worked five jobs in a year instead of fifty-two? I’d think: good for him, but not as interesting for the rest of us. When you hear “one job a week for a year,” the story becomes much more engaging.
When times are hard, a goal based on numbers also helps you keep perspective. Is it really worth it to go to random places like Equatorial Guinea? For most people, probably not. But for me, yes—because how could I be satisfied with visiting only 100+ countries?
“Well, that was fun—no need to see the rest!”
I don’t think so. What’s a quest without a challenging objective?
Numbers aren’t everything. But under the right conditions and aligned to to the right vision, they can be a lot of fun. My current number is: 143 down, 49 to go.
And how about you—what do you think about numbers?
Numbers are a useful framework both for keeping myself on track and for sharing my goals with other people. Concrete goals are a lot easier to communicate than amorphous ones.
On the other hand, I think we ought to choose our metrics carefully. When blogging, for example, it’s all too easy to get caught up in traffic-numbers-chasing and forget why I’m writing in the first place.
In other words, I use numbers to “concretize” my goals and track progress (occasionally), but I also work to keep them from taking over.
I could not agree with you more–numbers are a HUGE part of goal-setting. Without numbers we are wandering around in the dark. “Soft” or non-numerical goals are great. For example, I want to engage my readers. I want to change people’s lives. I want to raise money for charity. And so on…
However, without concrete numerical goals — how will you know if you are on target? And more importantly — how will you know when you have succeeded?!
This is a great post and has given me just the inspiration I’ve been needing to re-assess my own goals — personal & professional.
The thing I learned most in my Master’s degree was “what gets measured gets managed.” Plain and simple. Without number, we have no way to measure, no way to manage, and no way to set and reach goals.
My only argument would be: what happens after the numbers? so what happens when you complete the goal and you’ve visited every country? Where does the empire expand?
I like the idea of having asymptotic goals…goals that have measureable outcomes, but the closer you get, the harder it is to gain that much more marketshare. You then use numbers as measuring sticks & benchmarks, but never lose site of the broad purpose behind the numbers.
Maybe 10% of the time, numbers provide useful information. The other 90% of the time, numbers do not carry any significance – they are merely a crutch for the unimaginative and discreative to fall back on.
As George Lois said, “You can never test a great idea. You can only test a mediocre idea.”
Great post. Being self employed, numbers are vital for me. While it is great to be working at home, there are many potential distractions. I have a list of daily things to do, many of which are numbered goal activities.
Chris, Good to hear your take on numbers. I find that making goals quantifiable is a big key to success. It’s not the only piece to the puzzle, but it’s a prime way to evaluate if you effective. Here though you also speak about making goals outrageous!
Chris, great post. In the corporate world, goals generally have to follow a simple recipe – one of the key ingredients is making them “measurable”. Any objective should follow that same recipe and in order for them to be measurable, they have to be quantifiable. Working with a number in mind establishes a solid goalpost – something to reach for. However, it’s also easy to get caught up in the numbers. Sometimes the numbers interfere with quality work – especially when talking about time and budget. I think it’s important to also keep in mind that the numbers are just that… sometimes arbitrary, sometimes a max or min, but more often than not they are one target to shoot for among many others.
I understand the importance of numbers in goal setting. As a reader, however, I may be the lone decenter here. As an avid traveler, I am impressed by your goal of reaching 192 countries and will be the first to congratulate when you do it. I will also be jealous; I am certain. Personally, I would like to hit around 100 before I kick it.
However, I am far more interested in the reasons why people do what they do. There is some guy running around who owns the record for eating the most hard-boiled eggs in a sitting. It is probably 325 or something ridiculous number like that. The fact the he or she ate the eggs kind of makes me sick. The reason why this became something to plan out and then follow through with the hard-boiled gluttony is the part that will interest me, and maybe what happened after the goal was met or was it worth it?
FYI, I follow you not because of the goal of 192 countries, but because you are smart and have interesting things to say.
What an insightful, and helpful article on the “magic” of numbers in making your goals more exciting, more interesting to others and keeping you going when the going gets rough.
As somebody who coaches artists and creative types, and being an artist myself, I find our creativity can get lost in the stratosphere, without concrete goals and numbers. They help give a structure to the endless possibilities, and so actually allow that creativity to manifest, rather than being lost in the ether.
I’m currently involved in a 30 day blogging challenge where I’m aiming to get 30 blog posts done. It’s exciting me and motivating me
to keep blogging, and getting my creativity muscle stretched.
I just mailed your blog post to a client, and will certainly pass it on to others. Bravo!
I agree! Although being fixated by a numeric goal could lead you to think that the only sign of success is to reach it, instead of valuing the process as well, a goal makes it interesting, it is a fundamental element in leading a movement allowing people that support you to know your progress!
I have my own number! I want to help 1.000.000 people discover and realize their potential. I talk about why I am doing this in the One Million People Paradigm Shift Challenge manifesto. In many ways, Chris’s quest has inspired me as well in expressing my objective.
Keep it coming!
Thanks for all your great feedback as always.
@Alexander, as I say sometimes, I travel for travel’s sake. I expect to keep traveling after I accomplish the goal, but probably in a different way with different objectives. The empire won’t end anytime soon. 🙂
@Devin, no problem with the dissent. Most of my motivations for visiting every country are internal, and I wouldn’t be interested in someone’s eating contest either. Hopefully my project is a bit more meaningful, but of course that’s for others to judge.
What are you going to do when you reach 192? Are you going to go back to your favorites?
Oops. Sorry, I didn’t see Alexander’s comment or your response.
I love numbers. I make myself progress charts for my work. I love a pedometer. I like the machines in the gym because they give me numbers. I love the speed tiny computer in my bicycle. They help me move along and reach goals… This makes me think that is time for me to set some numbers for my coming weeks’ goals. Thank you.
Hi, I would agree as well, if I look at my travelnumber via travelbrain on facebook, I have been in 50 cities in 15 countries. I couldn’t travel just for travelling. It’s time to make money and I can’t just spent it on airplanes. But I do agree that it gives something to challenge for the next challenge… Cheers, P.
I knew that decenter just didn’t look right, but I was too lazy to look up dissenter in the dictionary — that will learn me. 🙂
I’m not convinced that numbers for the sake of numbers would work for me: I have a goal of numbers written during a session but I don’t worry about it. It’s a benchmark and no more to ensure avoidance.
Numbers often impress kids a lot; when I do tours, they remember daft numbers like the fact that Buckingham Palace has 78 bathrooms. They may not remember who the Queen’s husband is but they remember the 78 bathrooms.
Go Chris! Can’t wait to read your post when you hit 192
Ha – no worries.
Yep, after I finish I expect I’ll keep traveling in some form. Except not as much to places like Equatorial Guinea, most likely.
Agree! And feel validated, lol. Flying 100K miles just to make EXP–American Airlines top tier in their frequent flyer program–makes no financial sense since I’m a strictly leisure flyer, but it has really added some excitement, something to hang my hat on, so to speak. I’ve had some wonderful experiences that just would not have happened had I not decided to chase the number.
Couldn’t agree more re the number thing as it pertains to goal setting.
I also find it very interesting your post dropped into my inbox as I was listening to my latest TED talk. Worth a listen to.
This talk was very relevant to “Why Focus on the Numbers?” Tangible numbers are only one thing to measure and count. Do you have any other codified metrics that are more related to the intangibles? Anyone else? As a community let’s start doing this more. It’s exciting to watch our culture shift and important to be a part of the shift.
An obsession with numbers can accomplish a numbers-related goal. However, I prefer experiencial richness in my activities. If an opportunity does not offer a valued experience, just adding a number to the list doesn’t satisfy. What others think of that is less important.
Numbers give a tangible goal to look forward to and engage your audience. Couldn’t agree more.
I’m currently working on redesigning/expanding my blog and I looked up several numbers to figure out what my goal should be. Without it, trying to “get as many readers as possible” wouldn’t give me anything to compare my progress to.
It is interesting that you are visiting all the countries in the world in such a short period of time. I’m definitely jealous, but am doing my own kind of traveling that fulfills the kind of experiences I want to have. I’m looking for some way to put a number or goal on my traveling, but haven’t yet figured it out.
Now I’m thinking numbers. 🙂 And where to apply them.
While I agree that numbers can help “hook” the reader and that they can be helpful in making goals more concrete, I must dissent with what seems to be the general opinion: that something measurable has intrinisically more value than something that is more amorphous.
The further along my path I go, the more I treasure those moments where the intangibles of life intrude on my schedule and plans. How does one value the song of a bird? How to measure the practice of meditation or prayer? When I’m thinking, does it “count” as writing time?
I find myself rebelling against what I call the “widgetizing” of American productivity. Sure, there’s a lot of value in knowing exactly where you’re going…but it’s when we get lost that we make ground-breaking discoveries.
Great day to talk about numbers: summer solstice! On the longest day of the year, as the external energetic shift leans away from expansion towards contraction, I check in to see if my vision is still in alignment. Almost halfway through the year is the time I like to look back and see if I’ve kicked ass enough to celebrate some. Usually the answer is yes, and today is no exception ;-}}
I can get my knickers in a twist in a heartbeat over numbers. But looking back over 6 months’ trending gives me great perspective and new patience. The weekly numbers turn into monthly averages and I see progress from January to the present. One of my goals this year was allowing things to develop organically while focusing my intention with razor-sharpness. There is no single line leading me to the prize. Keeping a balance between quantitative and qualitative measures keeps me sane, inspired, and hearthead balanced.
Make sure what you’re measuring is meaningful. Happy Solstice!
Insightful as usual, Chris. Yes, numbers hold a lot of power. My parents celebrated 50 years of marriage this past weekend, and although making it to 49 years is amazing, 50 holds exponentially more meaning.
My number-related goals right now are more mundane, but like Megan your post got me thinking numbers and where to apply them.
Well said Chris!!
Specific and ambitious targets are definitely way more interesting. I do the same myself – my numbers game is a very short time limit (like Sean’s one per week I suppose!) to reach fluency in a language.
I get asked the same thing all the time – why 3 months? Why not take a year or two – well that wouldn’t be as much fun or interesting now would it 🙂
One other advantage is that even if we don’t meet are initial targets – say we get only 90% of the numbers, that is still one hell of an achievement. If we had only aimed for 90% initially then we wouldn’t have tried as hard and probably never would have gotten there.
Having said that, looking at it that way is only useful in retrospect. Until then presume you will be successful and do everything it takes to make it happen all the way to the end 😉
I agree that numbers are a great motivator in a goal, but only when it’s applicable (like x amount of countries). I prefer to cross something off a list. Sometimes numbers will appear, but just having something on a list makes my goal tangible enough that I’m motivated to get it done.
I totally agree with Laura. And what to say about the magic of words? For me, Equatorial Guinea sounds much more exciting than country number ?? – whatever
I agree that numbers add specificity, spice, and barometers.
When I happed upon your blog, I probably wouldn’t have been as interested if your stated goal was simply to travel a lot. Traveling the world sounds hella badass.
I recently noticed that my ebook subscriptions looked low, so I checked out the link, and there was a tech-glitch. Within a day of being restored, subscriptions are coming in. I know producing quality work is most important, but w/out numbers, you’re not reaching anyone.
Also, if you’re ‘in the range’ for OCD, numbers are super fun!
Today I ran 22 miles. I could just say I ran ‘allot’ or for a long time, but it is the number that gives today’s accomplishment meaning. In addition, numbers bring me confidence, because when I have just run 10 miles and have at least 10 more to go, and my body is tired, the sun is beating down, and my throat is dry and parched, I tell remind myself how many miles I have run in my life. The number is so large that 10 more miles just seems short in perspective. So yes, I count every mile, so I don’t forget what I have achieved and to motivate me to go even farther tomorrow.
As always Chris, you are so good at pointing out life’s little and often forgotten truths. Keep counting!
For me, numbers are huge. Ever since starting my blog (Hundred Goals), I have been living my life in a quest to accomplish my list of 100 goals, which has continued to grow steadily over time. I love to scratch off my accomplishments and add new goals. Its a great motivator for me and makes for a somewhat interesting story when you tell people how you are living your life with a mission to actually LIVE life instead of simply talking about all of the things you wish you could do. Now I have a list of goals and I’m doing them. The rest, they say, is history!!!
I am working on a project to sponsor 300 kids using Art, in Rwanda. There will of course be other options- some people may choose to just buy a goat and be done with it- but I won’t be satisfied till 300 kids have sponsors.
(yes, like the movie)
Numbers are incredibly important. Essential, even.
Without numbers, I would just be “doing stuff”. Aimlessly wandering where my mind happened to take me. Not good.
Well, not bad either, just not very productive.
I use numbers for the following: number of posts per week (2), number of interviews working on at a time (4), number of photos taken per session (140/hour), number of minutes writing fiction (60 for a standard session) and countless other applications. I don’t always meet my quotas, and I’m disappointed when I don’t; but I’m even more excited when I do reach these magical numbers – or exceed them!
I totally agree with you in that numbers solidify goals and make them concrete, and also help you along the way as you can constantly check to see if you’re on track.
I do think that numbers need to be balanced with a clear sense of why you’re doing what you’re doing. As long as you enjoy each trip (or can at least find aspects of each trip that you enjoy), then kudos. As an artist, I find that while I need to focus on sales goals and budgets and stuff like that, I also have to sometimes let go of that to just create on a whim.
That said, I’ve made it a goal to draw/paint/create something everyday for the next two years, so I wholeheartedly affirm the power of a lofty, badass goal.
Once again, thanks for sharing!
Great advice. Numbers definitely matter, both as personal motivators and rhetorical tools. But I think you must also balance the numbers with the softer side – plain ol’ gut feelings.
Setting an arbitrary numerical goal (climb all the peaks over 3000m in Japan in one coast to coast walk) changed the way I see the world. With that (completely arbitrary) measure, I have a new way to see, judge, and transform myself. I appreciate that you are reflective about the arbitrary nature of the goal, which is important for growing beyond the goal. All our measures of the world, numerical or not, are arbitrary, and with that knowledge, we are free to be unconventional! Working on it for sure. And I’m climbing the 2999m peak as well, just for good measure.
Great post, Chris 🙂 Being specific is less stressful and more satisfying. Otherwise a target or goal just feels abstract and unachievable. Good luck with the last 49!
Agree, agree, agree…need goals, focus, accountability and to be able to measure achievement.
I think that you definately need a purpose too when travelling. Whatever it is for example, eating the best fish or drinking different wine in each wine producing nation. Purpose is what makes our soul feel great!
Yeah, certainly, the numbers are very important. As it seems to me we can’t possibly be free of numbers anyway as long as we have got working brains. And there’s nothing harmful about the numbers, unless one gets overly obsessed with them. It’s to be understood that numbers are an excellent tool of measurement, quantification; but it’s important to have enough mindfulness to not let numbers take control of one’s mind.
Numbers make your goals specific. In some cases, without numbers, how would we know when we attain our goals? Setting a goal such as traveling to as many countries as I can isn’t specific enough to be motivating or achieved. When do you know you reach your goal? That’s why the numbers matter. Not always, but often.
Thank you for this Chris, your blog posts are always very inspiring and motivating. I certainly agree with both you and Hugh that numbers help put things in perspective and better define personal goals.
Numbers…hmmm…I was always 1st in school and college…reached higher turnovers than expected….highest salary as a PhD graduate in my school…higher attendance in workshops organized than anticipated. Were these outcomes of goals executed well or my goals? The former. I always found numbers to be distractions, but found them useful to learn from so I can improve my execution next time. Perhaps, it has to do with different personality types and what motivates us may differ across people.
I like annual total numbers. It it is very interesting and educational to watch the change over the many years of my life.
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