For those who have taken a psychology class, you may have heard of something called “Miller’s Law” or just “the 7 (plus or minus 2) rule” about human nature. Today I’m going to apply this memory rule to those (big or little) life projects or self-development quests.
Don’t worry if you hadn’t: I’d never heard of the first term until this week, and the second was a tiny part of my BSc on models of Short-term Memory.
However, I’m bringing this up now because when we’re looking for progress and feeling overwhelmed or don’t know where to start… it’s a useful concept to remember.
Definition Time: What’s this Rule?
In short, a scientist in the 1950’s discovered that, on average, humans could remember between 5 and 9 ‘chunks of information’ at a time in their short-term memory.
Firstly, let’s define Short-Term or Working Memory. Do you remember Dory from Finding Nemo? Yeah, she had difficulties with her short-term memory. That’s what I’m referring to and that’s what this psychological study explored.
The rule states that most humans can remember 5 things without difficulty for 1-2 minutes, and begin to struggle beyond this point. At 10 or more things, it’s almost impossible to remember them all without some kind of specialist technique or years of training.
Some humans manage 6-7, others only 8-9, but the minimum is usually five, maximum normally 9. The average is 7.
Why Does This Matter?
Thinking about your potential future self, your opportunities and goals… How long is YOUR to-do list? I bet it has more than 7 items on it. And those are just the big categories, with smaller tasks inside them.
So if we’re going to work within the limits and expectations of our mind… it makes sense to focus on the same number of different projects at any one time, that our brain can handle at one time.
So How Do We Use This?
Although it’s possible to add a new habit or goal once the previous one becomes ‘subconscious’ or ‘habitual,’ again, there is a limit to the number we can realistically do.
Looking at my hobbies, outside of my work I read, write fiction, watch TV, play video games, draw, study and still do the ‘lifestyle’ actions like work out and make dinner, feed the cats and shower.
There are two ways I manage this.
Firstly, I schedule my time so I’m not doing all those things on the same day. If I workout then shower, I tend not to read a book too. I might write daily, in my lunch break, just as I brush my teeth and eat meals daily, but the longer projects requiring regular chipping away take each other’s place on certain days.
Secondly, for any of those “projects” I keep it to 6 at any one time to avoid burnout.
This is not a new concept. Tiffany Han talks in her year-long program about having 6 big projects at a time. Naomi Dunford talks about one or two things per “category” of “now, later, and dont know” in her class on planning your next six months.
Using the Project Slots in your Life
For me, I also include ANYTHING which takes up a large amount of time or energy as a “project,” even if this isn’t actually a planned event.
At the beginning of 2019, I had my first major depressive episode in close to a year, and spent hours sleeping on the sofa. In terms of my time and energy, I halved my workouts, writing and reading time so I could fit in naps and emotional journalling time because I knew I couldn’t “add” those naps and that turmoil to my already full schedule.
I count my dayjob as one “slot” and my mentoring as a second one. My workouts are a third, and writing is a forth. With some depression and a self-help workbook alongside the naps, I was *full* without reading an extra novel or attending a master class on neuroscience, even if that would also have been good for me.
One of the key positives to having “project slots” is the rule that if you want to add something new (shiny object syndrome, anyone?) you can! You just need to finish a project or switch it out for the time being. This is great for us multi-passionates who get bored easily.
But mostly, this is a space to have Permission to Not “Do All The Things”.
(if that phrase doesn’t mean anything to you, click here.)
So often we get caught up in the new idea, the feeling of possibility, the pull of our potential… and we end up burnt out, feeling like a failure and just like we’ve wasted our life.
Try it, like your own psychological experiment. See what happens if you drop down to 5 or 6 slots. Just play with the idea, really explore putting some big category slots into your life to help give you some structure without suffocating your flexibility.