A Secret of Adulthood: What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE.

A friend who works at the Wall Street Journal mentioned a comment she’d heard from a financial advisor: if you want to make a big, indulgent purchase, you’re better off splurging on a one-time expense instead of a continuing expense. Buy a painting instead of joining a country-club. Buy some DVDs instead of signing up for HBO.

The next day, I happened to read Francis Bacon’s elegant articulation of that rule: “A man ought warily to begin charges which once begun will continue; but in matters that return not he may be more magnificent.”

This rule is a sub-set of a very important Secret of Adulthood: what you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.

Going for a long run once a week isn’t as beneficial as going for a shorter run four times a week. I never make my work-out unpleasantly challenging, because I know that if I dread it, I won’t go as often.

You’re better off splurging on occasional super-decadent dessert when you go out for a nice dinner, than stopping for a Krispy Kreme doughnut each day on the way to work.

A gourmet grocery store near my apartment keeps a tray of cookie samples in the bakery section. Whenever I shopped there, I took two or three (large) pieces. Then I started going into the store every time I passed by, just to get the samples. Finally I realized: I was probably eating the equivalent of two or three enormous cookies each week. Now I take a sample when I’m actually shopping (almost never, because the Big Man likes to shop there himself), and I never go in otherwise.

It’s discouraging, but true, that a spouse or a child will remember the one time you yelled better than the hundred times you held your temper. Or in my case, the one day when we were five minutes late for kindergarten drop-off, instead of every other day, when we were waiting ahead of time. Take heart, though; in the long run, it’s what we usually do that sets the tone for the household.

At work, it’s acceptable to lose your temper in an obnoxious way every once in a while. It happens. If you do it rarely, people will ignore your lapse except to feel embarrassed for you. But if you do it regularly, you’ll get a reputation as a jerk.

Be realistic about what, in fact, you do “every day.” I had dinner with a friend who told me, “I don’t eat dessert anymore, but that tiramisu looks so delicious that I’m going to break my rules and allow myself a piece.” He always loved sweets, so I was impressed by this self-control. “When did you give up dessert?” I asked. “Last week,” he said. He’d only gone without dessert for a few days, but in his mind, he was now a person who “never ate dessert.”

We often overestimate what we can accomplish in a short amount of time, but underestimate what we can accomplish a little bit at a time, over a long period. You’ll probably make more progress on your novel if you write for an hour a day, every day, than if you try (and usually fail) to spend your entire Sunday writing.

In most cases, the rule matters more than the exception.

; ;

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  • Ali

    Just wanted to drop a note and let you know how much I am enjoying your site. Strive always for happiness girl. 😉

  • Thanks for taking the time to write — you made me very happy! have a great weekend, Gretchen

  • I think it’s easy to get caught up looking for some “big answer” to our problems.
    What I take from this is that lots of small, extra, ordinary efforts every day can make as much difference as one large, extraordinary effort.
    Just what I needed right now – great post!

  • Dear Dwayne Melancon — you have perfectly summed up my approach for the Happiness Project. While I love reading accounts by people who’ve made grand gestures–moved to Tibet, given up buying non-essentials for a year, tried psychedelic drugs, moved to Walden Pond–I believe that, for me and you at least, the daily challenges are enough. That kind of effort is also also within reach of far more people. In the end, too, I suspect that the results will be more enduring. Best, Gretchen

  • This makes so much sense, Gretchen, thank you. I’m on Day 25 (ok, 26, it’s after midnight) of a 30 day cleanse, but what difference will it make if I just go back to my old way of eating? The most profound discovery that I have made on this journey of letting go, is what I call “closing the door”. For me, this is the way to happiness!
    Check it out:

  • I needed to hear this today, as I procrastinate writing in my novel, which is close to finishing!