The Man Who Has Been Counting His Sneezes for 8.5 Years

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We live in a time of lists—and are unabashedly, unashamedly addicted to them. At the end of the year, we make lists of the best (and worst) movies, books, and food we had the previous 365 days; we might even make hopeful lists of our resolutions for the coming year. We make to-do lists, grocery lists, lists of pros and cons, lists of things to pack into a carry-on. There are list apps and lists of lists of lists.

But Peter Fletcher is perhaps the most unique listmaker in the world. He is the force behind Sneezecount, which chronicles—yes, you guessed it—his sneezes.

Fletcher hasn’t always been a listmaker, at least not “beyond the administrative-procrastinatory,” he says. But on July 12, 2007—an otherwise unremarkable day—Fletcher began to wonder how many times people sneezed in 24 hours. Then he wondered how many times people sneezed in a year. And what about a whole life?

“The idea of keeping a detailed count then occurred to me, and struck me as innately ridiculous, and the ridiculousness appealed to me,” Fletcher tells mental_floss via email.

Peter Fletcher, presumably in the room where he sneezes most. Photo credit: Peter Fletcher.

But why sneezes? After all, people cough, fart, pick their nose—in other words, there are a variety of other bodily functions that Fletcher could have chronicled instead of the everyday spray. “Sneezes work perfectly because they are discrete events,” he says. “They are countable in a way that so many body functions or everyday events are not, and broadly speaking, they cannot be manipulated or faked.”

And so, the lowly sneeze became Fletcher’s chief daily interest. He noticed a curious, perhaps obvious fact: that sneezing occurs only when one is awake (or at least, Fletcher was only aware of sneezing when he was awake). He also noticed that his sneezes occurred more in the morning, tapering off by afternoon. But Fletcher hasn’t been able to track any other meaningful conclusions about the frequency of his sneezing.

Fletcher’s early attempts to record his sneezes were far less detailed than his current records. “I started off keeping a note on post-its if I was at my desk (I usually was) or writing it on my hand or any scrap of paper,” he says. “It didn’t take me long to realize I needed to be more disciplined and systematic, and so kept a notebook with me at all times, writing down the details, starting from the back of the book.”

He moved on to blogging, reporting the sneeze number, the location, “strength” of the sneeze, and “comments” describing his state of mind, environment, and observations about the sneeze. But this past October, Fletcher stopped his online blog; it had become too cumbersome, and Fletcher resorted back to a private journal.

Fletcher’s blog describes his growing awareness about the mundane act of sneezing. He’s noticed where he sneezes most—in his office/spare bedroom. Because he wants to record every sneeze, he often “deters” sneezes if they occur when he’s not able to record them or it’s the middle of the night. Fletcher’s accuracy in this realm extends to even the source of the sneeze: a pepper-induced one, for example, is considered a cheat and not quite an honest sneeze. And he’s oddly self-competitive with his sneeze count, congratulating himself at the end of a particularly sneezy day.

His recording devices have evolved, moving from Post-It notes to various Moleskins to emails while out and about and unable to reach his journal. Today, he’s let the journal habit go (he’s filled three notebooks worth), instead emailing himself when he sneezes. “It’s the one ritual that I’ve neglected and I regret that I stopped,” he tells mental_floss. “The notebooks and the writing down were an important part of the process in their own right.”

Fletcher is definitely on to something there. Journaling and recording thoughts has sometimes been viewed as a gratifying experience, a mindfulness exercise, and a way to cultivate appreciation for the little things. For some, jotting down the details of the day is a habit; for others, it’s a path toward happiness.

The thought of perhaps stopping his sneezing record has crossed Fletcher’s mind, and he’s entertained it. “There have been times when I’ve thought I might stop at a certain milestone, so x thousand sneezes, or five years or 1000 days, but each milestone comes and goes and I’m still doing it,” he says. Fletcher said that if he ever did stop tracking his sneezes, it would probably be when he died. “I might stop voluntarily one day though,” he says, with a never-say-never mentality. But it’s unlikely he’ll cease.

He’s blunt: The project is a solo, personal exercise, one that he finds rewarding for himself, though people have expressed their opinions, which Fletcher describes as “moderate to strong, occasionally warm.” He’s achieved some minor celebrity with the project—he’s been a featured speaker at the Boring Conference, spoken at Ignite London, and been the subject of a BBC mini documentary.

“When I finally sent out some messages to say that I was doing it, a self-assured acquaintance advised me to ‘Get yourself some kids’—I assume for the purpose of more fruitfully occupying my spare time," he says. "Of course, since then, that is exactly what I have done, and it was sound advice.”

Perhaps most surprisingly to the average outsider, Fletcher shrugs off how the project has affected him. In fact, he doesn’t recommend anyone follow his footsteps in keeping a record of their sneezes, “as it can be a bit of a burden.” He emphasizes he started the project as a joke but that, eight and a half years in, it’s become a habit and that he really doesn’t remember a time without recording his sneezes. As he says, “I’m interested in sneezes, but not overly interested in them.”

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February 8, 2016 - 7:30pm
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