How to absorb big numbers in overwhelming times

Compassion Canada
7 min readSep 29, 2020


Five strategies for when you encounter overwhelming stats

Living in the internet age exposes us to a lot of information — including lots of big numbers and overwhelming statistics. At any time, it can be easy to grow numb to words like hundreds and thousands and millions and billions. They can all start to blur together until 3.1 million sounds the same to us as 385 million or 2.2 billion.

A man sitting on a bench reading on a tablet.
Photo by Daniel Cañibano on Unsplash

Add to that these overwhelming times, when numbers are flying at us faster than we can keep up: new COVID-19 cases, growing unemployment rates, rising poverty and hunger rates, nearly one million COVID-19 deaths worldwide.

Even though we want to care and want to know the facts, our brains seem to glaze over these huge numbers, unable to really absorb them.

It’s a long-time struggle for those of us who work in poverty alleviation. Overwhelming stats in the magnitude of millions and billions is part of my everyday life. So, here are five strategies I find useful when encountering big numbers and overwhelming statistics.

1. Slow down

“In 2019 an estimated 5.2 million children under 5 years died mostly from preventable and treatable causes.” –World Health Organization

Pause. How many kids? When reading stats like this one, it’s easy to skim over the number. But therein lies the beginning of our problem with big numbers: we don’t actually read them.

Photo by Windows on Unsplash

Take a second, slow down and say the number in your mind — or even out loud. Five million, two hundred thousand. In 2019, an estimated five million, two hundred thousand children died, mostly from preventable causes.

Make a habit of this. Instead of letting your mind blitz over a number when you’re reading something, slow down and say the number aloud. Let it settle in your mind before moving on. Then, see if you can remember the number a few hours later, or even by the time you’re at the end of the article.

2. Put numbers in context

Once you’ve slowed down enough to know what the number is, it’s time to put it into context. What does this number actually mean?

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

Here are a couple of questions you can ask yourself:

1. Exactly how much is this number? It might sound like a silly question. But when you hear, for example, that according to the most recent estimates, 734 million people live in extreme poverty (World Bank), it’s likely difficult for your brain to process exactly how much 734 million actually is. So, put the number into context. It is halfway between half a billion and one billion. It is, according to the same World Bank article, 10 per cent of the world’s population — so globally, one in 10 people live in extreme poverty. Another great strategy is to contextualize the number to your own personal context — how many times the population of your province or country is this number? For example, 734 million is about 20 times the population of Canada. The number is still huge and hard to conceptualize, but when you take a minute to understand its magnitude, it can help immensely with absorbing such an overwhelming statistic.

2. Does this number represent forward or backward progress? For example, while 5.2 million child deaths is harrowing, you might be interested to know that in 1990, that number was 12.6 million (World Health Organization). In 30 years, the world cut child mortality by more than half. Many of us are used to doing this particular contextualization exercise by now, as we take in each day’s report on new COVID-19 cases in our community. We know not to take just the number on its own, but to compare it to the previous days and weeks to understand whether we are making forward progress to reduce the number of cases, or if cases are trending dangerously upwards.

Taking the time to contextualize big numbers makes a huge difference in understanding their implications.

3. Verify the facts

Throwing big numbers around can make an article or source seem legitimate. After all, we’re taught that numbers don’t lie, right? But numbers can get twisted or presented in a misleading way — not necessarily because of ill intentions, but sometimes just because of an honest mistake.

That’s why it’s so important to verify the facts. This is always important, but it is especially important before you share them. Is your source credible? Do multiple credible sources agree?

Take time to understand how the writer, researcher or organization came up with the number you’re reading. Look for additional information that might help you understand the context of the statistic. Find out how the writer or researcher’s methodology (a fancy term for how someone collects data) led to the number.

See, numbers aren’t perfect. Sometimes, they do lie — or at the very least, they can be misleading if you take them at face value and don’t do your research. That’s why taking the time to verify the facts and seek out the experts is so important when trying to absorb statistics or data.

4. Take a break

We weren’t meant to take in so much distressing information. We can only take in so much before we shut down. That’s why it is so important to take breaks. Stop doom scrolling!

Sure, it’s important to stay informed. For those of us who are committed to making a difference, it can feel like the world is on our shoulders and we have to keep up with all the news and numbers. But you can’t be the change if your mind is numb and overwhelmed.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Set screen time limits on your phone and don’t take it to bed with you. Be present with the people around you — have a full conversation without checking your smart watch. Close the Twitter tab while you’re working and lock your news app after dinner. When the world feels like it’s too much, engage in something that gives you life: meditate, write a poem, listen to music, go outside, get some exercise, cook a meal, call a friend.

Some estimates suggest that currently, the cumulative knowledge of human civilization doubles every 12 hours. In the 80s, that doubling rate was every 12 months and less than 100 years ago, it was every 25 years.*

We live in a time of unprecedented information — quite literally like nothing the human mind has been exposed to before. It’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed. Give yourself permission to take a break.

5. Seek the story behind the stat

Most importantly, remember that behind every statistic are real life stories. Finding those stories helps to humanize big numbers.

By now, you’ve likely heard that because of COVID-19, the number of people experiencing acute food insecurity could more than double to 270 million (World Food Programme). Trying to understand more than a quarter of a billion people living on the brink of starvation is a lot for anyone to absorb.

Photo by Tigist Gizachew for Compassion International

But behind this huge statistic are stories like Abiyot’s. The single mother of six from Ethiopia was pushed to the brink when the COVID-19 crisis caused her to lose her job and her children’s school to close. This meant no income, and no school meals, either.

“I felt defeated,” Abiyot says.

Thankfully, a local church in Abiyot’s community — a partner of Compassion’s — was there to step in, providing groceries and rent support to this family in desperate need. “They have rescued my children from hunger,” says Abiyot.

Hearing about the hundreds of millions of people who are going hungry because of the pandemic can leave us feeling helpless. But when we hear the story of one — one person, one mother, one child, one family — we begin to see how we can change the story. In the words of Mother Teresa, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just one.”

We may grow numb to big numbers and overwhelming statistics, but may we never grow numb to the real life, human stories those numbers represent.

Towards a better world

These strategies are important, because we live in a hyper-connected world during strange and overwhelming times. Engaging with information in thoughtful and careful ways is vital for our mental health, our real-life relationships and our online interactions.

In fact, perhaps these strategies go beyond engaging with big numbers. Perhaps if in all aspects of life, we slow down, seek to understand, tell the truth, practice self-care and listen to each other’s stories, we will collectively move towards a better, more compassionate world.

Oh, and — don’t scroll up — how many children under five died of preventable causes in 2019?

Alyssa Esparaz works for Compassion Canada, telling stories that inform and inspire Canadians towards compassionate action for children living in poverty around the world.

*Source: How to Un-hurry, John Mark Comer



Compassion Canada

A leading child development organization, Compassion helps children and their communities overcome extreme poverty.