The Habits We Most Want to Foster, or, the “Essential Seven.”

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? (To be notified when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

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.

Last week, 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. Now I have seven areas.

Second: given the new number, a reader had a great idea for a snappy name: the Essential Seven.

Voila! The Essential Seven include…

1. Eat and drink more healthfully (give up sugar, 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 the Bible every day, 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 (#2), for someone else, a way to find mental rest (#4); for someone else, a spiritual practice (#7). 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, and our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise-control of habits. Mindfully, then mindlessly.

Before and after! 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?”

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  • Penelope Schmitt

    Oh I LOVE this formulation Gretchen! Your choice of image is stunning too by the way. And SEVEN, by the way, is such a great number . . . sins, virtues, gates to the city and so forth. I think this really does capture what we aim for.

    • BKF

      Seven days of the week, 7 notes in a musical scale… Seven is also important in Hinduism (7 Chakras; 7 “pheras” or circles around the fire during a Hindu marriage etc.)

      I love the list. Well-done!

  • youonlylawonce

    I love how you took our feedback so seriously! This is why I try to interact on this blog daily. People like feeling useful. 🙂

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I so agree! I really like this way of thinking about what’s essential, and I believe I will be making more of an effort to balance my DAY this way and not just my week or month.

  • Heidi McCarthy

    Yes!! The Essential Seven !! It is hard work trying to stick to good habits. It is definitely life changing. Especially when you have a family involved who will either support you or maybe not.

  • Anna Kate

    I made a list of my seven things tonight. 1) God 2) Health 3) Family and friends 4) Habits and routines 5) Creativity 6) Money 7) Art. My whole life, and all the things I love go into this list. It was a joy to think about.

  • Yolanda A. Facio

    For a long time I have had a hard time understanding the need to study happiness. I’ve often felt that to be grateful is at the root of being happy. But as I digest your list, I realize that those around me who are unhappy are missing a few of the essential seven. This year I decided to formalize my constant desire to learn by outlining and undertaking 20 new learning experiences. In order to do that, I have undertaken the task of working only four hours a day. I’ve become so much more efficient and focused during work time which allows me to enjoy the learning time even more. I am more fully engaged in all seven areas and I am, dare I say, even more happy? Great list, very insightful. Thanks for putting it out into the world.

  • beverley smith

    I think we would far less stress if we gave up on habits altogether and just got on with living instead. Although it is early days for me since i stopped running after what i cannot catch i am more content with myself, my life and others.

    • gretchenrubin

      Interesting point. One thing that I explore in Before and After is the fact that some people love and embrace habits—and some people DON’T.

      • beverley smith

        I think we often adopt other people’s habits and when we are not having the same success as others then we see ourselves as a failure. Hope that makes sense.

  • 7 is special. In the Bible 7 represents completeness when referring to things on earth.

  • Beverly

    These 7 really set out the issues I’ve struggled with throughout my life. From reading along I’ve learned to think of these as resolutions that will never be perfectly accomplished, but more as guideposts that point a direction. At least that helps me keep from getting discouraged and starting new days, weeks, months, with fresh enthusiasm

  • Marci Bowman

    I believe you’re spot-on with your Essential Seven. And I particularly love the phrase “Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life.” Beautifully accurate. Thank you, Gretchen–I’m looking forward to reading your upcoming book!

    • Penelope Schmitt

      “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” (T.E. Lawrence) springs to mind too!

      • Abby

        The Seven-Storied Mansion by Thomas Merton, too!

  • Susie Davis Dodge

    Love the Essential Seven. How awesome it would be if these habits became ingrained in me! I loved your last two books on happiness. I can’t wait to read this new one on habits. Every time I read one of your emails, I always think we’d be great friends.

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! I’m so happy to hear that.

  • Jeanne

    I love the Essential Seven, and think that most of us would like to be doing our best in all of them. But then the question always gets back to “why aren’t we?” I still think it is essential to look not just for loopholes that we use to keep behaving the way we do, but to look for the payoffs that keep us behaving the way we do. All behaviors have payoffs, and until we recognize ours, we will still keep getting our payoffs in the old familiar way. As Dr. Phil once said, we can’t change what we don’t recognize. What’s my payoff for working too hard or eating too much or procrastinating? Then, how can I get that payoff in a healthier way?

  • Goldberry

    I think that category #7 is really two VERY different categories:
    a) relationships – with family, friends, co-workers, community etc. / social life (being better in relationships, building better relationships, creating more relationships or being more selective about relationships, etc.)
    b) inner peace / spirituality – quiet time, meditation, prayer, religious observances, etc.
    Also, the name “Engage more deeply” is too general – engaging more deeply could apply to almost anything, e.g. also work, hobbies, exercise, food preparation, etc.

    The name “Essential Seven” is great, but I think it should be the “Essential Eight.”

    As for category #3 “Save and spend more wisely,” I think it is about managing finances. If yes, then the name is too narrow: managing finances could also include finding more/new/better sources of income. How about “Manage finances wisely”?

    • Lynn

      I agree, #7 seems like two very different categories to me too. Relationships with others is very different to me than being grounded in ourselves – spirituality or inner peace. I put gratitude in my 7b category too. In the end, they are the things that recharge our batteries and give the most meaning to our lives. I’m guessing that is why you combined them. The reason I would separate them is that you can engage deeply with others and not yourself, or yourself and not others. I see each of those as having a vastly different focus.

      I’m really looking forward to reading your book! I’ve looked at these same topics for over 20 years in my working life, but always from the point of view of a manager in a company. How can we help people build better work habits, deliver more consistent service, empathize with our customers, and stay engaged in their work? In the end it’s often a larger question than what we can answer in the workplace. Looking at it from a personal point of view is SO exciting! I think people are hungry for this information.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      The view you express is one that puts your spirituality in a different box from your ‘people’ box . . . maybe that is true for some of us and not for others. I have to say that I think ‘engage more deeply’ is an open enough phrase to make sense for a solitary meditator and for a person at a family gathering. I like it.

      • Goldberry

        Your comment makes me think about it more… Maybe spirituality as a general term should not be assigned to any of the categories since it may be involved in so many things we do, including relationships and community. But there is a part of spirituality that is a quiet / alone time and this is what I had in mind in point (b).

        To me a “quiet time” (alone – not with other people, still / reflecting / praying / meditating) and “people time” are different – they require different skills, different habits, different types of energy, different focus. If for your or others these two are somehow similar, I am curious how it works for you (but I don’t know if it can be explained…).

        • Penelope Schmitt

          I think that we meet the God of our understanding in both ways–through human contact and in solitude. So ‘engage’ seems the right word to me.

  • phoenix1920

    WOW! I may be biased in favor of 7–it has always been my special number, but the list and the name really click for me. I hear this “ding-ding” bell going off. For me, forming habits relating to money has been something I’ve really been trying to do. And the inclusion of “Engage” is fantastic. I think you’re right–we are too social of a creature not to have something social on this list!

    So looking forward to reading your new book! I already have most of the books relating to habits and will-power (although I think your 4 Rubin Tendencies has helped me on that more than the books I already have)

    • gretchenrubin

      That is so nice to hear.

      I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by my draft right now, so it’s very encouraging to hear from readers who are eager to read this book once I finally manage to wrestle it into shape.

  • Abby

    Just fantastic, Gretchen, seven is a very mystical, magical number, and adding “Essential” to it gives it a lot of power. And the seven categories capture well what the human genius is, so, “Well Done!” I can’t wait to read the book even though you give us such a thorough preview.

  • Angela Sherman

    This has such a flow to it like reading the days of the week on a calendar it just makes sense- it feels natural as if they are some aspect of a law of human behavior. It is kind of thrilling that just a list can evoke so much emotion (A-ha is the feeling I get)

  • lisamary

    #7. My opinions: “Go deep.” “With the Holy. With the Universe. With yourself.” “Engage the people in your life; regularly read from sacred texts; observe a Sabbath; volunteer; seek the solitude of nature.” Looking for something a little more interfaith and welcoming to a wider audience–sell more books. 🙂

  • Jen

    This year I am tackling the habit of managing my emotions. It doesn’t seem to fit in your 7, but as I try to not yell and model self control for my kids I believe it is the key to much in life.

  • emo

    I”m 7 years older than my husband and thus I’m aware of couples with a 7 year age difference. There are many! (most often women 7 years older than their partner—celebrities especially), and I’ve always thought it a magic number as a result. I look forward to the book.

  • MK

    I started cultivating new habits at the start of 2012 and many of my habits touch on these essential 7. I grouped mine into mind habits and body habits. Some of the habits fit into both (yoga for example). I’m now toying with work/productivity habits. There are so many little habits that can make a big difference! Also, I’ve focused on bringing in positive habits as opposed to focusing on the bad ones. I call it ‘not weeding the dandelions’ and instead focusing on cultivating the foundation. I get very excited each month when I pick a new habit, a new challenge. I’ve always relied on the power of 10 minutes. Starting is often the hard part. And 10 minutes is easy to commit to (for yoga, meditating, and cleaning in particular).

    Looking forward to hearing more about this project.

  • Emily

    The concept of the Essential 7 really clicks! I just realized why I felt so energized reading this post. The Essential 7 are a more conceptualized part of what I felt you touched on in “The Happiness Project.” Your quest for more happiness was just as much a quest for new or improved habits – something that really resonated with me. I love picking up my copy of “The Happiness Project” weekly because I often pick up a new tip or idea that I missed before. I’m just as eager to one day own a dog-eared copy of your book on habits!

    • gretchenrubin

      You are so nice to say so. I really appreciate those kind words.

  • jowill

    I would love to see an eighth – reflect regularly, noticing and acknowledging the commitments I have kept and the positive changes I have made for myself. The Essential Eight perhaps?

  • Di

    This is a great list!! I read a sign on a church sign once that said: “The best way to break a habit is to drop it.” I never used to make my bed, but now I can’t leave my bedroom until the bed is made first thing.

  • Atheist

    I discovered this blog only yesterday, and I absolutely liked it… until item #7 of this list. A disclaimer would have been welcome, something along the lines: “if you are religious” after the words “God”, “Bible” and “Sabbath”.

    • gretchenrubin

      These are all suggestions, no one would follow them all, so I think it’s clear that they’re meant to show the range of what a person might do, not a suggestion of what a person should do. Just to help jog people’s minds.

  • Rob

    In scripture 7 is perfection.

  • Enlightenmentor

    I would add sleep to number one. It is the very foundation of organising the mind internally.

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  • I just read this section in Better Than Before and first of all, LOVE the Harry Potter reference. Second, I’ll suggest the Essential Seven as positive habits to focus on in my blog post about breaking bad habits. Thanks Gretchen 🙂