The Seven Commandments

How many of the Ten Commandments can the average person name?  Almost no one aces this test including respondents in a survey by Kelton Research who were able to name the seven ingredients in a Big Mac, but not recall the commandment, “thou shalt not kill.”  Yet the Ten Commandments are the equivalent of a social contract that informs our legal system, our civil behavior, and our love and respect for God.  The Commandments are shared by Jews and Christians, but other religious groups subscribe to many of the same principles.  So why can’t we name them all?  I believe it’s because we can’t hold more than 7 independent objects in short term memory—a proposition that was proved scientifically in 1956 by George Miller, then a professor at Harvard who wrote the seminal paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.”

Miller is known as the father of cognitive science, and I often wonder how he would apply his magical number to today’s digital information overload.  Finding a way to manage everything from information, work obligations, everyday tasks, social engagements and even friendships and family is essential if we’re going to recall our memories and escape our self-imposed mental hopscotching.  Writer Andrew Sullivan called this having “pond skater minds.” 

Many religions and cultures limit their tenets to seven, including the Japanese who revere the seven virtues: Truth, Bravery, Compassion, Civility, Sincerity, Honor, and Loyalty.  Catholics have the seven sacraments and the seven deadly sins:  lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, pride, and wrath.  But Mahatma Gandhi created his own list of seven:

1.       Wealth without work

2.      Pleasure without conscience

3.      Science without humanity

4.      Knowledge without character

5.      Politics without principle

6.      Commerce without morality

7.      Worship without sacrifice

The Hindus also have seven marriage vows, taken as the couple walks seven steps around a fire.  In Judaism, seven is perfect number, indicating completeness.  This is based on the seven days of creation (including the day of rest).  Muslims share the idea that seven is a perfect number.  According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad ascended into the seven heavens during his lifetime and met the divine.   

Despite our focus on what some see as fundamental differences among religious beliefs, we have more in common than we acknowledge.  Christians, Jews, and Muslims, for example, share seven common beliefs: 

The Seven Shared Beliefs

1.                  Monotheism—belief in one God.  Christians believe in the Holy Trinity (The Father, Son and Holy Spirit), but the three are one according to the New Testament.

2.                  Divine revelation—truths are revealed through the word of God.

3.                  Daily Prayer—Muslims must pray five times a day; Jews are supposed to thank God every day for the gifts he bestows; and Christians who follow Catholicism are to pray seven times a day, while most simply say nightly prayers.

4.                  Muslims, Christians and Jews all participate in religious fasts.  Christians have Lent, a 40 day period of denial leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; Jews fast during Yom Kippur; and Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan.

5.                  Prophetic Tradition—all three religions believe in “messengers of God.”  Jews and Christians believe in Moses among others in the Old Testament; Muslims acknowledge many prophets of Allah cited in the Qur’an, the most important being Muhammad.  All three honor Abraham as great prophet.  Abraham believed in the one and only God.  So if all three religions believe in Abraham, they would logically believe in the same God. 

6.                  All three believe in almsgiving and charity.

7.                  All three believe in holy sites:  Jerusalem for Jews and Christians, Mecca and Medina for Muslims. 

Perhaps one reason the Ten Commandments are not fully shared by all religions is that some of the tenets are redundant or confusing.  We would do much better organizing the first 3 in the chart below into one idea of belief and respect for God.  The last two—coveting another’s wife or possessions is a thought, not a behavior, not worthy of a commandment that deals with behavior.  Voila—the perfect seven commandments that almost everyone can remember and hopefully act on. 

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Attention, Please!

In April 2008, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about “The Great Forgetting.” He said that the 21st century will probably be known as the Bad Memory Century. It’s not just aging baby boomers who are suffering from memory lapses and “where did I put my keys?” Teens and twenty-somethings are just as afflicted as they confront endless streams of data, information, music, entertainment and chitchat through their ever-expanding warehouse of digital tools.


It’s gotten so bad that the dean of the University of Chicago Law School turned off access to the Internet in his classrooms. In an email to his students, Dean Saul Levmore said, “We have a growing problem in the form of distractions presented by Internet surfing in the classroom.” He warned that “class has come to consist of some listening but also plenty of emailing, shopping, news browsing and gossip-site visiting.”


It’s no wonder that a new academic discipline has begun to emerge at some of the most elite business schools in the country, including Harvard. The course, Attention Economics, is based on the book by Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck, The Attention Economy (Harvard Business Publishing). Getting and keeping people’s attention long enough to attract them to a new product, or idea is becoming as difficult as maintaining focus in the classroom, at work or even at dinner with the family.


That’s where the number seven comes in. Using seven as a filter for managing all the digital noise in our lives is one way to avoid the kind of mental hopscotching that can undermine our happiness, our relationships, and our success. The idea is based in part on the work of a former Harvard professor, George Miller. In l956 he wrote the seminal paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” and proved that we can only hold seven independent objects in our short term or working memory—seven numbers, letters or words, for instance.


But in today’s world, paying real attention to what someone is saying, being able to read long passages without interruption, or simply letting our brains idle and daydream without constant distractions is virtually impossible without a conscious effort to eliminate the external.


Companies like IBM and Intel have been looking for ways to increase worker productivity by limiting interruptions and distractions. According to Jakob Nielsen, an Internet usability specialist, a one-minute interruption can easily cost a worker 10 to 15 minutes of lost productivity—the time needed to recapture the context and get back into flow.


But that’s not all it costs. More than $650 billion a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions, according to The New York Times. The greatest interruption assaults, of course, come from email. Rescue Time, a free Internet application, lets users block distractions for a fixed period of time and shows you exactly how and where you’re spending time online. It’s like a Weight Watchers for obsessive email checkers. Rescue Time claims that someone who’s on a computer all day typically accesses his email program more than 50 times and uses instant messaging 77 times. And Google Labs recently launched Email Addict, an app that “lets you take a break from email and chat by blocking the screen for 15 minutes and making you invisible in chat.”


Finding ways to cut through the digital clutter in our lives is a Herculean task. But if you limit your to-do list to seven items a day (varied between small medium and large tasks) you’ll have a shot at controlling your day and actually accomplishing those tasks. As a manager, having more than seven direct reports can mean never having enough time to work with your staff and plan the strategies that will grow your company or eliminate wasteful practices. And in your personal life, overbooking your seven-day week means blowing off friends, family, or even love-making with your significant other. Instead of canceling the best of life, I believe there are seven ways to simplify the overwhelming choices we confront every day:


1. YES: Ask for help, pay for help, or say yes to an offer of help.

2. NO: Learn how to say no to too many social engagements, too many favors, too many extra projects at work, too many irrelevant solicitations from spammers and direct mailers.

3. STOP: The clock. Life isn’t a 24/7 merry-go-round. If it were, you wouldn’t get the seven hours of sleep necessary to keep you fit and sane.

4. GO: Keep in shape with an exercise routine you can stick to.

5. START: Use technology so it doesn’t use you up. Online banking, and shopping ,for instance, will save you time, money, and stress.

6. END: Clear the clutter, trash the trivial, Get organized.

7. BE: Make time for family, lovers, friends (not just the hundreds you have on Facebook). Learn how to breathe and daydream. Be your true self and find your humanity.


Jacqueline Leo is Director of Digital Operations at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Her new book, Seven: The Number for Happiness, Love, and Success, is being published this month by 12, part of the Hachette Book Group.