The Power of Small Decisions

Write a check of one million dollars concept of wealthIf someone offered to give you $1 million dollars right now, or 1 penny that would double in value every day for the next 30 days…which one would you choose?

To most people, $1 million would seem like the obvious choice to make…right?

So, let’s imagine that is what you choose.

A week later, it will certainly seem like you’ve made the right decision!  After all, the penny is only worth 64 cents, whereas you have $1 million dollars in your bank account.

Two weeks later, when the penny is worth $81.92, you’ll still feel great about your decision.

Even after 3 weeks, the penny is still only worth about $10 thousand…100 times less than your million. 

But then let’s say you check in again after 4 weeks.  Now – seemingly all of a sudden – the initial penny is worth more than $1 million dollars ($1,342,177.28, to be precise).

And on day 31, it is worth $10,737,418.24…over TEN million dollars!  Far more than the $1 million you accepted on Day 1.

It’s hard to believe that choosing to start with the penny is the better decision, unless you look at the numbers.

Compound interest (1)

If you calculate the answer, it makes sense…but if you just choose based on your intuition, you’re probably going to make the wrong decision.

This is an imaginary story, which I read recently in the book The Slight Edge

What I found so interesting about this book was the idea that these same ideas about compound interest also apply to our day-to-day behavior.


We tend to underestimate the power of small, consistent actions

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that this isn’t money you’re investing, but time spent studying, reading, or exercising.

 We often think of the small decisions we make every day as relatively insignificant:

“I only have 20 minutes after school before I need to leave for practice…so why bother starting on my homework?

“We’re not turning in these math problems, they’re just for practice.  So, it won’t really make a difference if I skip the last few.”

“I’ll just watch one more episode of this show first, and get started after that.  I can always start tomorrow if I have to.” 

It’s so easy to get home from school and spend 10 minutes texting your friends – or 30 minutes watching a show on Netflix – before starting your homework. 

And in the short term, that doesn’t seem like it really will have much of an effect. After all, it’s just half an hour.  What difference will it make?


Initially, it might seem like nothing is happening…

Let’s imagine that you really want to bring up your grade in math, so you decide to spend an additional 10 minutes doing practice problems for your math class every afternoon, before starting the rest of your homework.

At first, this might not seem like it’s having any impact. 

The difference between good choices and bad choices is often very small, so when you first start changing your behavior you might not notice a huge difference.  In fact, it probably will seem like your actions aren’t having any effect at all.

After all, 10 minutes of extra studying isn’t going to make a huge difference in your level of understanding.  Even after a week or two, you still may not see much of a difference in your grade.

This is when many people give up…after they’ve put in some effort for a week or two, and aren’t seeing any results yet.


…but small changes COMPOUND over time!

Over the course of an entire semester, 10 minutes of study time a day adds up to approximately 20 additional hours of time spent learning this material.

If each additional hour you spent studying added just ONE percentage point onto your overall grade, that 10 minutes a day of extra effort would make the difference between earning a 76% and a 96% in your math class over the course of the semester.

And what if you continued putting in 10 minutes a day to practice math, all the way through high school and college?

After 8 years, this would add up to 486 extra hours of studying, that you would barely even notice on a daily basis.

If we assume that the most you would normally be able to study for any one class would be 4 hours a day, this is the equivalent of spending 121 days – or about 4 back-to-back months – studying math. 

Can you imagine what an amazingly good math student you would be, if you spent that much time on it?


Wherever you’re starting right now, consistent action can lead to huge gains over time

Remember our story…the person who started with the penny, and doubled it every day, ended up with more money at the end of a month than the person who started with a million dollars.

If you continue improving yourself a little bit every day, this can lead to enormous improvements over time…so much so that you can end up outperforming people who seem to be FAR ahead of you right now.  

For example, the student who has an A in math right now might look like they’re ahead of you…but if you start spending an extra 10 minutes a day studying, and they get overconfident in their abilities and reduce the time they’re studying by 10 minutes a day…eventually you are going to catch up with them!


Achieving your goals can be easy!

The good news is, as we’ve seen, very small choices can compound into significant results over time. So, the great news about that is you don’t have to make a huge change in your behavior to see results.

For example, let’s say you want to have a cleaner room.  Rather than waiting until you’re going to have hours to clean it, why not try setting a timer for five minutes every afternoon, and use that time to pick up as many things as you can?

If you do this, you’ll be spending over an hour cleaning your room every 2 weeks…and once you’re in the habit of doing it, the whole process will be so easy you’ll barely notice you’re doing any work.

Creating simple habits like this can make your life so much easier and less stressful…because it’s almost as if you are on autopilot to achieve your goals.


Delaying gratification can have a HUGE payoff!

It can be awfully tempting to make the choice that gives you quick results now.  But if you’re willing to wait, you can earn a much bigger reward in the future. 

In our story, taking the $1 million today was the “quick fix” solution.  You get the money now…but you lose out on a much greater reward if you were only willing to wait a little while to receive it.

This is true in real life as well!

Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen conducted a study at Stanford University which found that children between the ages of 4-6 who were able to delay gratification by waiting fifteen minutes for TWO marshmallows, rather than eating ONE right away, had significantly higher scores on SAT tests in high school.

In fact, Duckworth & Seligman have found that having the self-discipline necessary to delay gratification is a better predictor of academic achievement than IQ.


You can apply this principle to almost anything!

Of course, becoming great at math is just an example. 

break bad, build good habitsWhat else could you do, by repeating small simple actions consistently over time?

  • Becoming fluent in a language…by practicing for 10 minutes a day
  • Learn to play an instrument…by playing for 15 minutes when you get home every afternoon
  • Complete & submit your college applications…by spending an hour on them after lunch every weekend, starting in the summer before your senior year
  • Run a half-marathon…by jogging 3 times a week, and increasing the distance by a quarter of a mile every time you run
  • Completely organize & clean out your room or apartment…by spending 5 minutes on it ever evening before bed
  • Become the best player on your sports team…by practicing an extra 15-30 minutes longer than everyone else
  • Write a novel…by setting aside half an hour every evening to write before bed

Of course, these are only a few examples!  Really, anything you want to achieve can be broken down to a series of consistent daily actions that…compounded over time…add up to big results.

If you tried to achieve these things in a day, a week, or even a month, they would be extremely hard – or even impossible – to accomplish. 

But if you work on them a little bit at a time, they are all achievable!

It’s SO easy to overestimate what we can accomplish over the span of the day, or week, but underestimate what we can accomplish over the course of a semester or year. With interesting to me is that the actions which lead students to be successful are often not a big, heroic efforts they make over a short period of time. It’s the small, consistent daily actions they perform day in and day out that truly separate them from their peers. Over the course of the day, a week, or even a month, a student who studies for a few extra minutes a day, or make the consistent habit of meeting with their teacher after class, might not get very different results than a student who chooses not to do those things. However, over the course this semester, a year, or their high school or college career, these decisions add up, and make an enormous difference.

Action Steps:

Here are a few steps you can use to start implementing these ideas:

  1. Start noticing the small, daily decisions you’re making, and whether they are moving you closer to or farther away from your goals. Once you start to build the awareness of which habits are helpful in which are not, you can begin to choose to shift them.
  2. Identify ONE consistent daily action you can START taking – or an unhelpful habit you can STOP doing – that will help move you closer to your goals.
  3. Create a routine to help you follow through with your plan
  4. Create a scorecard to help you track your results
  5. Set up an accountability system with someone who will encourage you and inspire you to stick with your plan…even when it seems like it isn’t working (yet!)

Want to learn more?

Do you like the idea of creating successful daily habits that will make it easier to achieve your long-term goals?

If so, you may be interested in my upcoming group coaching program for high school students in the Atlanta area, which starts on March 17.

The focus of this program will be on helping students establish a series of helpful habits that will help them to become more successful in school.

We’ll be meeting once a week for six weeks, to learn & apply foundational habits & strategies students can apply to their work that will dramatically improve their results over time.

Students will also have the benefit of doing this work in a group setting, where they can hold one another accountable, and track their progress as a group, which makes the process of changing your behavior so much easier and more fun than trying to do it on your own. 

Some of the topics we’ll be focusing on include…

  • Setting clear achievable goals
  • Little habits & small changes that add up over time
  • Creating plans students can stick with over time
  • Tracking progress
  • Creating accountability

     If you’d like to join us, CLICK HERE for more information

Thanks so much for reading.  I hope you enjoyed this article!

If you want to learn more about this topic, consider checking out the book ‘The Slight Edge’ or ‘The Compound Effect”, which go into more depth about these examples & ideas.

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About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit or email

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