The connection between one of my Secrets of Adulthood and the “maximum-use imperative.”

One of my Secrets of Adulthood is: What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE.

I’ve been surprised how often this “secret” comes in handy.

Exercising – I have a friend who thinks she’s a regular exerciser because every several weeks, she goes to the gym for two hours. Nope!

Eating – before I gave up fake food, I’d say to myself, “Sure, I eat fake food, but just here and there.” When I was really honest with myself, finally, I realized that I was eating fake food three or four times each day. It wasn’t a once-in-a-while habit.

In a fascinating book, Daniel McGinn’s House Lust, I learned that market researchers use the term “maximum-use imperative” to describe the fact that people will often buy something to accommodate a use that they need only rarely.

So, for example, you might look for a house, or a dining room table, that’s big enough to seat your entire family when it’s your turn to host Christmas dinner – even though you have a family of four that’s dwarfed by that size.

Along the same lines, I’ve noticed that when making decisions, I tend to give too much thought to what I do ONCE IN A WHILE and not enough weight to what I do EVERY DAY.

Shoes, for example. I wear running shoes 29 days out of 30 days a month, yet I have three pairs of black flats and only one pair of running shoes.

Why does this matter for happiness? Because, I think, we’re happiest when our decisions most closely match our natures.

If I splurge on linen cocktail napkins, but never have cocktail parties, I’m not going to be pleased with my purchase. If I tell my doctor I eat lots of fruits and vegetables, but actually eat lots of pizza and subs, I’m not going to get sound advice. If I insist that I love skiing, when in fact, I love staying inside reading, I’m not going to enjoy the vacation.

It can be hard to be myself, to acknowledge what I really enjoy — it can be easy to let lofty fantasies get in the way. Again, I ask, why is it so tough to “Be Gretchen”?

If I pretend to myself that I’m different from the way I truly am, I’m going to make choices that won’t make me happy.

The New York Times blog Shifting Careers is a reliably great read. Even if you’re not looking to “shift careers,” it’s worth checking out, because so much of the information there is interesting and useful for work life generally.

New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Valerie

    Simple advice but so true. Great post thank you

  • “It can be hard to be myself, to acknowledge what I really enjoy “- that is so true! I find myself thinking that a lot. This was a great entry!

  • I have found that the best way for me not to be fake or inconsistent or to rationalize something is to clearly lay out my values and priorities in order. That way when I am faced with a decision (which is all the time) I can act according to the things that I have set out that is most important. It eliminates the justifications. If it does not match up with what is important I don’t do it.

  • Wow. This is really sound advice. Thanks for posting this, and I think I’m going to have to check out that book.

  • Laura T.

    Wow, I’ve been reading daily for a few months now, and while I always enjoy it and learn something, I’ve never felt compelled to post before. But this is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen in quite awhile. It also made me realize that in addition to making decisions based on “once in awhiles,” I sometimes also make them based on the kind of person I think I should be. I SHOULD enjoy gardening, so I have plenty of gardening supplies; but I don’t enjoy gardening and I don’t use them. Wouldn’t the money have been better spent on a landscape service? I SHOULD read the newspaper every day, but instead I listen to the radio or look at CNN online. Meanwhile the papers just go in the recycling unread and make me feel guilty for not having read them. Very eye-opening stuff today.
    P.S. I love the name of the new blog “Note to Self,” very clever.

  • Like you, Gretchen, I enjoy finding that there’s a term for a principle that I’ve “discovered.” When shopping for chairs, we realized that 95% of the time we would be seating 4 people or fewer, and when we have more than 4, we can add folding chairs. This will allow us to buy nicer chairs with our budget, and sitting in very nice chair 95% of the time + folding chair 5% of the time will give us much more enjoyment of the room than a mediocre chair 100% of the time.
    I’ve also been experiencing the power of “every day.” I’ve vowed to spend just a half an hour working right after dinner each night, before relaxing for the evening. At first, I thought 30 minutes was not enough time to make a dent in my backlog of work, but I decided that 30 minutes is short enough that it will be easy to talk myself into doing it. If it were, say, an hour, I could easily see myself thinking “I’m tired, I just can’t work a whole hour tonight. I’ll give myself a break,” and then I wouldn’t be doing it every night, and I’d probably end up, in short order, not doing it at all.
    But by telling myself, “Just 30 minutes; it’ll suck, but then I can relax, guilt-free,” I’ve been able to keep up the habit, and adding 2 1/2 hours of dedicated work time to my week has just about cleared up the backlog! When I’ve caught up, I’m looking forward to using the 30 minutes to start something exciting and new.

  • Gretchen, this post inspired me to write about the Maximum Use Imperative on my own blog. Thanks for introducing me to this useful concept!

  • stacey

    Being Authentic could be the sigle most important tool to feeling happy…
    This written perfectly… :o)

  • stacey

    Being Authentic could be the sigle most important tool to feeling happy…
    This was written perfectly… :o)

  • stacey

    Being Authentic could be the sigle most important tool to feeling happy…
    This was written perfectly… :o)

  • Alison

    This is related to my feeling that if you use something every day (like my eyeglasses), it’s worth it to get what you really like, no matter the cost. Not that we don’t shop around, but I feel it’s really important to get the right thing if you are using it every day.