Do You Love Numbered Lists? Here Are Some Lists to Help with Your Habits.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: a round-up of numbered lists to help you shape your habits.

As I’ve mentioned many times, I’m working on a book called Better than Before, about how we make or break habits — which is an intensely fascinating subject. (To hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

With habits, and happiness, and everything else, I’ve always been attracted to organizing information according to numbered lists — this process helps me think clearly and remember better.

Slight tangent: I get a tremendous kick out of the numbered lists that pop up throughout Buddhism: the Triple Refuge, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Auspicious Symbols. It was surprising to me that Buddhism, with its emphasis on gateless gates and transcending the bounds of rational thinking, has so many of these numbered lists. I love them, but still, it seems incongruous. There’s a koan to be written about it, that’s for sure. Like, “Use numbers to throw away enumeration.”

Here are some numbered lists that are useful for habit-formation — presented, of course, in a numbered list:

1. The Four Tendencies

When it comes to making a habits, it’s crucial to know how you tend to respond to expectations: both outer expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  1. Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  2. Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (myhusband is a Questioner)
  3. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  4. Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

If you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, you can watch: for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, here;  Rebels, here, and Obligers, here.


2. The Foundation Four

It’s a Secret of Adulthood: Good habits foster good habits. Change fosters change.

Certain habits seem to be particularly important; they serve as the Foundation for other habits. I always remind myself, “First things first.” That is, pay attention to the obvious before worrying about more subtle concerns.

Foundation habits keep us from getting too physically taxed or mentally frazzled, and then, because we have more energy and self-control, we follow our healthy habits more easily.

From my observation, the four Foundation habits are:

The Strategy of Foundation holds that when you’re trying to change some habits, think about strengthening your Foundation.

3. The Essential Seven

When I think about the habits that I wanted to cultivate, or talk to people about their happiness challenges, it seems as though just about every habit that people seek to make or break falls into the “Big Five”:

1. Eat and drink more healthfully (give up sugar, eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol)

2. Exercise regularly

3. Save, spend, and earn wisely (save regularly, pay down debt, donate to worthy causes, make purchases that contribute to happiness or habits, 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, accomplish more (practice an instrument, set aside two hours daily for uninterrupted work, learn a language, maintain a blog, keep a gratitude journal)

6. Simplify, clear, clean, 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)

4. The Ten Categories of Loopholes. I love this list; loopholes are hilarious.

When we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation. However, if we catch ourselves in the act of loophole-seeking, we can perhaps reject them.

1. False choice loophole “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that” – this is one I often use, myself

2. Moral licensing loophole  — “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this”

3. Tomorrow loophole — “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow”

4. Lack of control loophole — “I can’t help myself”

5. Planning to fail loophole — “I walked into this bakery to buy a bottle of water”

6. “This doesn’t count” loophole – “I’m on vacation” “I’m sick” “It’s the weekend”

7. Questionable assumption loophole — “the label says it’s healthy”

8. Concern for others loophole — “I can’t do this because it might make other people uncomfortable”

9. Fake self-actualization loophole – “You only live once! Embrace the moment!”

10. One-coin loophole“What difference does it make if I break my habit this one time?”

How about you? Do you like reading or making numbered lists? It gives an illusion of control — an illusion, perhaps, but a helpful illusion.

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  • Penelope Schmitt

    Hey Gretchen! You almost qualify as a Buddhist Guru with all your TERRIFIC and HELPFUL lists! I love them all. The loopholes and the seven essentials are really the NEW things that I have learned from you. The foundation four I can only say BRAVO, these are the obvious (but so many of us try to power past them) essentials of a serene and happy and healthy life. When I walk into or try to ‘live into’ the chaos in which others live, especially family members, I ACHE to want to give these principles to them as gifts. Alas, it seems they must all be discovered, item by precious item, by each person for him or herself. Namaste!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that they struck a chord with you.

  • Oh dear, reading this it looks like I’m a real sucker for the loopholes! Time to find another kind of list that words FOR me not against me 😉

    Amazing post Gretchen – I’ll be sharing it with a couple of girlfriends that I know struggle like I do!


  • statmam

    I like numbered lists as long as they are COMPLETE lists. I can’t stand incomplete numbered lists. One of my pet peeves is when an article begins “X, Y, and Z are three of the top five cities (or restaurants or television shows or whatever)…” My mind shuts out the rest of the article while I fixate on the question “What are the other two?!!”

  • Nyssa

    I too am a list maker. I have a daily to do list, a yearly list of resolutions and a life long bucket list. My struggle is that I find when I get one habit down well another starts to slip. I weaned myself completely off diet coke (I was a chain drinker, starting with an eye opener first thing in the morning). Then when I felt I had mastered that I signed up for a gym and started exercising at 0500 in the morning. Now I am faithful at that, but can’t make it through the day without a caffeine boost. It is like with kids and report cards. One grade is lower than the rest, they focus on that subject and another one slips. Ideas? Thoughts?

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I know what you mean. I used to think of myself as a sort of ‘moral amoeba’. I could flow over there and cover that base, but the rest of me would just slop off the other bases I WAS covering. Here’s something I have found kind of helpful: I have some time-of-day routines (morning and evening mainly). Like your 5:00 a.m. gym time. Could you allow yourself ONE caffeine laced drink after the gym and make that (and only that?) part of your routine for the morning???? I seem to be able to create order starting with one habit and attaching others to it.

    • Agnes

      Where’s Gretchen’s post on not giving up coffee?

  • anung

    I am definetely a questioner. Love lists, they help me feel organized inside

  • Chelly

    What an amazing post! I simply love The Foundation Four. As for the Four Tendecies, I’m definitely an Obliger. It’s so simply to meet outer expectations, but when it comes to the inner part, that’s a whole different situation – all the negative thoughts and what-people-will-think-about-me pop in my mind and I give up doing what I was dying to do, like write a novel or starting a blog.

  • Amy H.

    All very useful to an Upholder and list-lover like myself! Small nit — under the Essential Seven, in the preamble to your numbered list, you refer to the “Big Five.”

  • Yikes, this is powerful, and I certainly recognized myself in some of the loophole items :-(. Thank you, Gretchen.