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How The Magical Number Seven Can Help You Organize Your Life

It seems the number seven has a lot more importance in our lives than most of us realize.

Just think of how often things come in sevens:

– Wonders of the world

– Ages of man

– Deadly sins

– Days of the week

– Colors of the rainbow

…and many more.

If you ask someone to give you a number between 1 and 10, they will probably say seven and many people claim it as their lucky number.

One of the most important significances of the number seven was highlighted first by the 19th Century Scottish philosopher William Hamilton.

He wrote: ‘If you throw a handful of marbles on the floor, you will find it difficult to view at once more than six, or seven at most, without confusion.’

This may seem pretty obvious but he was drawing attention to a point that turns out to be quite important in understanding the human mind.

The English economist William Stanley Jevons later conducted some research around this topic that influenced “The Magical Number 7” a 1950s study by by American psychologist George Miller.

Miller observed that most people can consciously only deal with about 7 bits of information in their mind at one time. Depending on the circumstances, they may be able to remember as few as 5 or as many as 9 so the range he gave was 7 + / – 2.

The exact meaning of a ‘bit’ varies depending on the circumstances but it could be something like numbers, colors or facts. Clearly, it’s much easier to remember a six digit telephone number than it is to remember a ten digit one, for example.

Incidentally, Miller’s work is often misrepresented to ‘prove’ a range of points and his paper doesn’t suggest that there really is anything magical about the number 7. He has, for example, commented that there is nothing in his work that made it necessary for Moses to drop any of the 10 commandments!

Nevertheless, it proves to be a relevant and valuable guideline in planning communication and marketing.

He discovered that you could make it easier to remember things by bringing different bits of information together in a way known as ‘chunking’.

Chunking is about organizing information into a manageable number of bits. Chunking can be done in two different directions.

We can drill down to a more specific level and get greater detail. For example, if you are talking about cars, you can become more specific by talking about makes of car such as Ford or BMW. You can then become more specific still by going down to brands or models from each manufacturer and continue that process into greater levels of detail.

The secret of making this work is asking the right questions. In the car situation, we might ask ‘what are some examples of this?’ If we are developing an action plan, we might ask ‘what specifically do I need to do?’

You can also use the process of chunking in reverse to link together a range of different ideas under a smaller number of topics. In the cars example, you would start with a number of different models of car and organize them into related categories.

You would ask the following question: ‘What is this an example of?’ or ‘What is the purpose of this?’

This process will help you arrange a lot of different ideas into a more manageable number.

You can use the chunking process in reverse to connect related ideas into a more useful structure.

Chunking seems very obvious as a concept but is the sort of discipline that most people don’t follow in practice.

When you use it deliberately, it can help you organize your ideas more effectively and get great results in your communication.

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