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The Behavioral Butterfly Effect

If a butterfly flaps its wings somewhere in Africa, that’s a small event. But the wing flap could be enough to slightly alter a wind, which in turn could initiate a chain of events causing a tornado weeks later. The point here, is that a very small event, such as a butterfly flapping its wings, can have very large consequences. We call it the butterfly effect.

Throughout life I have noticed that there are a lot of butterfly effects in human behavior. What I mean by this, is that there are a lot of micro-decisions we repeat over and over, on a daily basis, that over time lead to very large consequences.

Let me take an example. If you are pushing yourself to do boring but important work, you will soon reach a level of resistance, where you will be overly tempted to pause and do something else than work. This micro-decision takes place in a fraction of a second. You decide to open up a Facebook tab. Or to you check your phone. Or to just daydream for a minute. Every time you reach this point of resistance, you also have the option to stay focused, to power through the resistance.

No matter what the turnout of your decision is, you tend to make the same choice every time, as these micro-decisions quickly become habits – when you experience a stimuli, you tend to react the way you have done previously. I would like to propose, that this small decision, at this small point where you see resistance, is the difference between an unproductive and a productive person.

Let me take another example. Say you are stepping into the elevator at work one morning, a bit stressed about the meeting you are running late to. Just as the doors are about to close, a man squeezes through them. He seems just as rushed and focused as you. Hmm, he looks familiar. Isn’t that the new marketing assistant who was hired last week?

Now you are faced with a seemingly small decision: Do I initiate a conversation with this guy or not? If you don’t, it will not have much of a consequence. After all, you don’t really know the guy, right? And he seems focused on his own things. But that minuscule decision, made in the blink of an eye, that you make over and over again, is the difference between a shy person and an outgoing person. And that makes for two very different lives.

I used to be the guy who always took the decision to not speak to the other person in the elevator, in the lunch queue, on the bus. And yeah, it worked. But I was the shy person, never making any new friends.
Then one time, I tried talking to that other person. Perhaps I felt extra brave and adventurous that day, who knows? And a whole new world opened up. I got to talk to a new person. I made a new acquaintance. My mood lifted slightly from the conversation. My horizons broadened. And something changed within me: I became intrigued to try it again.

Sometimes, the decision to talk to the person next to you can make larger differences. When I was riding a bus from New York to DC a few years ago, an asian guy was sitting next to me. I didn’t talk to him for the whole six or so hours the ride took (yeah, there were serious queues). But just a few minutes before hopping off the bus, for whatever reason I managed to strike up a conversation. Turns out we had a lot in common, and we quickly became good friends. We spent the next day exploring DC, having a lot of fun. And a couple of years later, as I was traveling across China, I hung out with Jack in his home-town of Shanghai for a few days, having a great time. That micro-decision on the bus, gave me a new friend for life.

You make these small butterfly decisions every day, and usually you make the same choice every time for any particular decision. What choice you make is a habit, but these habits determine your personality. If you change them, your whole personality changes. And that will make a lasting impression on the rest of your life. Try to push yourself to take the other decision sometimes, to see what happens. You might see a butterfly effect.

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