Change your life: Harnessing the power of micro-decisions
I was sitting at work the other day and felt a bit thirsty. On my desk I had a bottled water, a cup with a tea packet in it, and a soda. Without hardly thinking, I glanced up and started to reach for one.
Then I stopped.
I was struck by the power of choice that I had at that very moment. The difference between each decision — water, tea, or soda — was almost imperceptible, just moving my hand barely an inch or two. But the difference in meaning and consequences were much larger.
You see, I was on a diet. A diet not much different from any other periodic commitment to lose a few pounds. Changing my action just a little, a scant movement of my hand would either keep me on my diet or break my diet. It would reaffirm my power to change or usher in failure.
— Little decisions count. —
I refer to these types of decisions as micro-decisions. They are the little things we do that are almost invisibly woven into our lives each day. They are the small, almost minute, decision points we encounter and pass through without even thinking. But by failing to recognize them, we fail to take advantage of their power to reshape our lives.
Should I reach for the soda or the water? How do I greet others in the morning? How do I respond when others around me gossip or complain? Do I walk up the stairs or take the elevator? How do I say thank you to others? These are all decisions that could shape our health, fitness, relationships with others, and attitudes.
— Micro-decisions are the building blocks of well-being. —
Part of the power of micro-decisions lies in the fact that they aggregate together. This means that each decision builds upon the others, creating the person we are. Micro-decisions are the building blocks of well-being. If we consistently make small, positive decisions it leads to positive well-being. Of course, if we consistently make small, negative decisions it leads to the opposite.
Sometimes, we end up in a place or a circumstance and we are not quite sure how we got there. There were probably a whole range of conditions and decisions that interacted together to lead us there. The larger decisions we are likely aware of, but there were probably other smaller decisions and actions we made along the way that shaped our destiny as well.
— Micro-decisions are a bridge to the future. —
Sometimes, when we want to make a big change, we wait and wait, convincing ourselves that we need to gather strength and wait for the right time to make a big push. But we miss our opportunities. We have hidden opportunities to change in the thousands of small decisions we make every day. There is no need to wait and make one huge effort. Instead, we can make subtle shifts in our behavior that pay big dividends later. We just have to pay attention, act purposefully, and be patient.
Micro-decisions inherit the qualities of larger decisions and reaffirm them. Choosing to be on a diet is a decision. Beneath it lies my decision to drink bottled water instead of soda. The action of reaching for the bottled water is a decisional behavior at the very moment of my present life, it is simply me expressing all of these cascading decisions in real-time.
You could say that micro-decisions are where the rubber meets the road. It is where our decisions manifest as behavior in the present moment. The decisions to lose weight and drink water are aspirational, their consequences live in the desired future. The micro-decision to reach for the water in this moment lives in the present, its consequence lives in the here and now.
Micro-decisions break decisions down into chunks we can handle. Being on a diet is a big decision, one that we are told requires effort, commitment, planning, and discipline, sometimes for months. But micro-decisions live in the present moment. They last only a few seconds. But, by making positive, small decisions we automatically reaffirm our commitment to change and reaffirm the strength of our character, but we do it miraculously in the smallest, almost effortless, way.
— We only need to exercise self-control for a few seconds. —
There are a couple of reasons why micro-decisions are powerful. First, they are accessible. Rather than waiting for ourselves to build the strength to make a big change, we can act now. Think about it. Can you control your actions for 5 seconds, for 2, for 1? If you can, then you have the opportunity to harness the power of micro-decisions. It only demands that we exercise control for a second. But these seconds are critical since they re-direct our actions at the very moment we are living in — the present moment, the right now. The power to live fully aware in the present gives us the power to control the future.
A second reason that micro-decisions are powerful is that they shift our awareness to now. Many people advocate living mindfully, but how do we do that? Part of the answer lies in being aware of the present moment. But we cannot just sit back and admire the present moment; we have to realize that the present moment is a critical bridge to the future. In a sense, there is no future, just the present moment rolling endlessly before us. We cannot simply accept the present moment, we must appreciate that it is active, not passive, and that it requires mindful choices on our part. The present moment is packed full of potential. Our decisions in the present, the here and now, shape our destiny in a million ways.
For more insights see my books and blog at https://www.jamesmcginley.com.
YouTube channel, The Coping Expert, at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbsIoVmbTlMZFNqv_1vCu9Q
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James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life — whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.