Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
My current writing project is a book that will be called Before and After, about the most fascinating subject ever: the subject of habits. How do we make and break habits, really?
It was my interest in happiness that led me to the subject of habits, and of course, the study of habits is really the study of happiness. Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. Or not.
When I talk to people about their happiness challenges, they often point to hurdles related to a habit they want to make or break. I posted about the Big Five — the areas into which most people’s desired habits fall. I asked for reader advice about two questions: had I overlooked any areas, and was there a better name than Big Five?
Thank you, readers! I got very helpful answers to both questions.
First, yes indeed, I’d missed some important areas, so now I have seven areas. And second, given the new number, a reader had a great idea for a snappy name: the Essential Seven.
Et voila! The Essential Seven include:
1. Eat and drink more healthfully (give up sugar when possible, eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol).
2. Exercise regularly.
3. Save and spend wisely (save regularly, pay down debt, donate to worthy causes, make purchases that contribute to happiness or habits, pay taxes, stay current with expense reports).
4. Rest, relax, and enjoy (pursue a hobby instead of cruising the Internet, enjoy the moment, stop checking email, get enough sleep, spend less time in the car, take time for myself).
5. Stop procrastinating, make consistent progress (practice an instrument, set aside two hours daily for uninterrupted work, learn a language, maintain a blog, keep a gratitude journal).
6. Simplify, clear, and organize (make the bed every day, file regularly, put keys away in the same place, recycle, give away unused clothing).
7. Engage more deeply — with other people, with God, with yourself, with the world (call family members, read your religious scripture, volunteer, spend time with friends, observe the Sabbath, spend time alone in nature).
Of course, the same habit might satisfy different needs for different people. For one person, yoga might be a form of exercise, for someone else, a way to find mental rest; for someone else, a spiritual practice. And, people value different habits. For one person, organized files might be a crucial tool for creativity; another person finds inspiration in random juxtapositions.
The argument I’ll make in Before and After is that when we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision-making to choose the habits we want to form, use willpower to get the habit started, then — and this is the best part — we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. At that point, we’re free from the need to decide, and the need to use willpower. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise-control of habits. Mindfully, then mindlessly.
It’s what we all crave. So readers, what do you think of the Essential Seven — the name and the concepts themselves? I very much appreciate all the thoughtful comments that people posted. Very, very helpful.
I must say, it pleases me to have seven. I hate to quote Voldemort, but he was right when he observed, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “Isn’t seven the most powerfully magic number?”