THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT: HOW SMALL CHANGES LEAD TO BIG PROGRESS

A bright blue butterfly on a wooden beam

Small changes over time can really add up. A concept often used in meteorology known as the Butterfly Effect can show us how.

The Butterfly Effect is all about how small changes in a complex system can equal results that are virtually impossible to predict. What might seem like a very small and insignificant change in one place could result in large differences somewhere else or at a later stage.

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SMALL CHANGES AND A BUNCH OF DIRECTIONS

If you were to roll a ball down a hill, it can go in a multitude of directions based entirely on a small rock that it might hit on the way down. This relates well to our lives because often when dramatic and life-altering events take place you might agonize over the most basic and minute details that could have changed the circumstances.

  • you ate your veggies as a kid you probably would like them now
  • took care of your shoulder while playing sports as a youth you could have avoided injury now
  • picked up the pace a little on the last lap you could have had your best mile time
  • set a reminder on your phone you would not have forgotten that birthday/anniversary/appointment
  • woke up 5 minutes earlier you wouldn’t have missed the bus

What may seem like small changes or insignificant events, may or might not have a larger impact on our lives.

SMALL CHANGES AND THE CONTROL FREAK

I’m a bit of a control freak, not in all situations but in certain circumstances, I like the feeling of knowing what is going on and believing I have the ability to choose what will happen next. It’s one of the reasons I am not particularly fond of drinking alcohol, I just hate the feeling of not being in my normal state of mind if that makes sense.

I’m sure many of you are the same. You might like the feeling or the belief that you control your own destiny. But there are some instances where chaotic events happen that are beyond our control.

  • You can control what foods you eat
  • You can not control the weather
  • There’s control whether or not you exercise today
  • There is no control over whether your dog shits on the carpet
  • You can choose to start your own business
  • You can not control whether or not you get fired tomorrow (you can influence it but not control it)
  • There’s control over loving someone unconditionally
  • There is control over if someone loves you

Like the game Plinko on The Price Is Right you can play the odds of the chip landing where you want it to by dropping it in a specific location but ultimately it will be random. In your life, you can limit the chance of chronic disease and obesity by eating real food and exercising consistently.

You can influence your social relationships by becoming a better listener, being there for someone when they need you, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. There are many things you can avoid, limit, or make less likely but not always avoid and that is why getting comfortable with the uncomfortable is so important.

USING SMALL CHANGES TO YOUR ADVANTAGE

Sometimes jumping into a cold pool is just what you need, or a cold shower and other times that might not be the best approach.

If you are looking to change a habit like making better food choices, exercising more, procrastinating less, or eliminating fears you might have to take a slower approach, one that emphasizes one small step at a time. This can reduce a lot of confusion, anxiety, and feelings of being overwhelmed.

1. Would you rather have a million dollars today or a penny?

Small changes done consistently each day can equal big rewards down the line. Take the doubling penny for example. If I offered you a million dollars right now or a penny that doubled in value every day for the next Thursdays what would you do?

The gut reaction says to go with the million dollars today but when you double a penny every day for the next 30 days you would end up with 5.3 million dollars. I know what you might be thinking, but who knows what will happen in the next 30 days and you’d be right for asking that questions but you’d also be thinking about the least likely outcome. Most likely in the next 30 days, you’ll be totally fine and life will go on. You can afford to be patient.

2. Get up a little earlier

You could wake up 30 minutes earlier every day to prepare a meal or two, to get in a quick workout, to work a bit on your side hustle, to spend time connecting with your wife or kids, to practice some gratitude or meditate. 30 minutes earlier every day is another small change you could make now that might lead to large and positive changes down the road. Just think what 30 minutes of exercise might do for you every morning if you are not currently doing so.

3. Give a little to get a little

A few months ago I wrote a little post about how I bought someone a cup of coffee at Starbucks and ended up not only getting a free cup myself out of it but my money back and then some from someone else that saw the gesture. A $1.65 here, a hug there, a call to someone you love, or a simple thank you while goes further than you would think, you might have just made someone else’s day and their mood could be affected by it.

4. Smile more

Smile a bit more, as corny as it sounds smiling is something that we often take for granted but can have a tremendous impact on not only our lives but the lives of others. To prove it who would you rather spend time with, Picture #1 or Picture #2?

Researcher Andrew Newberg has a study in which a smile is rated as the highest symbol for positive emotional content. When the smiling muscles in our face contract there’s positive feedback that is sent to the brain for you to express joy and in return, your brain sends signals to the rest of your body that you are actually happy and experiencing joy. It’s this cyclical event that just keeps going around and around, so the more you smile the happier and more joyful you’ll be.

To touch on this a bit further there is a famous yearbook smile study that shows how a simple smile can affect you long-term.

“…By measuring the smiles in the photographs the researchers were able to predict: how fulfilling and long-lasting their marriages would be, how highly they would score on standardized tests of well-being and general happiness, and how inspiring they would be to others. The widest smilers consistently ranked highest in all of the above…” Adapted from Forbes.com

And for you baseball fans there is the Wayne State University study that used baseball cards and players smile to determine how long they would live.

“…The study found that the span of a player’s smile could actually predict the span of his life! Players who didn’t smile in their pictures lived an average of only 72.9 years, while players with beaming smiles lived an average of 79.9 years…”

Smiles convey a sense of trust. Thye can influence how you feel or others feel about social slip-ups or blunders. Smiles can even get you some leniency if you get yourself into some trouble. Plus they’re contagious. Spend a few moments with the happiest person you know, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear in no time flat.

Just goes to show you how important practicing happiness and a simple smile every day can translate into much bigger things. So spend more time with kids, they smile up to 400 times per day compared to the average adult that smiles only 20 times.

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A NIFTY LITTLE WAY TO IMPLEMENT SMALL CHANGES EVERYDAY

There’s something that you can do now that will increase your likely hood of success by 2 to 3 times. This little trick is known as If-Then statements. Dr. Heidi Grant Halverson gives us a specific example here of just how and if-then statement works.

“…Imagine your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight. Most people would make a plan like this: “Eat less, exercise more.”

For starters, it’s not nearly specific enough. How much less will you eat, and of what? How will you exercise, and how often? The if-then version of this plan spells out exactly what you will do in the critical situation.

If X happens, then I will do Y.

X can be a time and place, like Monday at 9 a.m., or it can be an event, like the arrival of the dessert menu at a restaurant. Y is the specific action you will take whenever X occurs.

So step 1, “Eat less,” becomes something like “When the dessert menu comes, I will ignore it and order coffee.” Step 2, “Work out more,” turns into “I will work out for an hour at the gym on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays before work…”

In a study about exercise, it was shown that 91% of those that used if-then planning were more likely to stick to their exercise plan. This in comparison to 39% of those who did not use the strategy.

Dr. Halverson goes on to elaborate in this psychology today article that if-then planning works so well because it speaks a language your brain can understand. It goes back to some of that high school algebra if X then Y type stuff. If this occurs then that will happen is very easy for your brain to digest.

This type of planning can help you avoid the “To Hell With It Effect.” A bad mood, environment, or mojo influences you to engage in risky behavior or to make bad decisions. One way to overcome this is by using if-then statements like If I am in a bad mood I will… But it takes practice and needs to be done on a consistent basis. Applying the concept to one thing at a time might be your best option to achieve success.

ONE SMALL CHANGE AT A TIME

Many things in our lives are random and that’s ok. I wish I could control everything but I know that I can’t and I’m ok with it. But I’m also well aware that I can make choices and tiny decisions every day that might influence long-term success.

Most of the things that you want to accomplish in life are not really that difficult. It comes down to consistently making decisions and being persistent enough to experience the changes.

Objects in motion tend to stay in motion

Way too often we just stop. We stop trying, stop caring, stop moving.

By doing so all we’re doing is sending a message to our body and mind that we’ve given up. Keep at it whatever it is. Stay in motion, one day at a time, one small insignificant action at a time.

What is one area of your life that you just seem to STOP moving? How do you plan to stay in motion?

Justin

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