Evanston RoundTable, Feb. 21, 2019
When I exercise doing planks, I pick out 60 seconds on the clock and start counting to myself. When I pass five seconds, I note that one-twelfth of the exercise is done. At 10 seconds it’s one-sixth. Fifteen seconds is a quarter. Twenty seconds is a third, 30 a half, and so on.
In other words, I chop up the intervals into ever-larger fractions and marvel at how quickly the fractions mount. The time seems to go faster and the mental distraction of finding the lowest common denominator makes the exercise less onerous and more doable.
When starting a big project, the best approach is to divide it into small parts and start with the first. As the old saying goes, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Since there are roughly 2,000 steps in a mile, we could say the first step is one two-millionth of a thousand miles, and the next step is two two-millionths. Behold: we have just gone twice as many steps!
Such mathematical curiosities are perhaps what the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno was getting at with his famous Paradox. He said (as one example) in pursuing someone in a footrace you could close the gap a fraction at a time, but since there are an infinite number of fractions and because infinity is unreachable, you could never win the race. The absurdity is paradoxical.
Zeno was making the point that motion, in a sense, is imaginary, but we know this is untrue. In fact, most seemingly intractable problems can be solved this way, a step at a time. As Neil Armstrong said, one small step for man, one giant leap (of many steps) for mankind. To take another example, does writing your long-imagined novel seem impossible? At just a page a day (250 words), it could be finished in 35 weeks.
A few summers ago, setting herself an unusual challenge, a friend of mine walked from her south Evanston home to Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, a distance of 270 miles. She spent months mapping out the journey. By chopping the distance down to doable bites, ranging from eight to 23 miles a day, she made the trip in 27 days.
Thus inspired, I choose a sunny winter day to walk to work. It’s about three miles. But instead of counting fractions I count items of trash. Walking east on the Dempster Street bridge at McCormick I spot haphazardly discarded bottles, cans, newspapers and other litter on the curb and sidewalks, in the bushes and on the street. I’ve written about this problem before, on Earth Day, though truly it is a problem in need of a solution every day.
In this fashion I get to work while expending a few hundred calories and dispensing with a few dozen items of trash. Plus I have the makings of a column.
In other words, the numbers add up!