The inner working of London’s Big Ben clock is a huge, room-size interplay of gears, weights, pulleys and pendulum requiring constant maintenance and calibration. When the technicians check for accuracy and find Ben off by a few seconds, they employ a very simple solution—a penny! The weight of the penny may be enough to bring that marvelous timepiece into perfect balance.
When I learned about Big Ben’s penny adjustment, I was reminded again that small actions can produce enormous effects. We know this is true in the natural world of living systems. The example of a butterfly’s wings in action resulting in a storm across the globe describes this well. Science calls this sensitivity to initial conditions. The same phenomenon is true for us in our personal and professional lives, and within our families and organizations.
Small actions and choices do matter
So, where in our lives can small actions produce great results- where can our pennies be most wisely spent? Let me give you an explanation using the components of a balanced life. For nutrition, here is a concrete practical example. Let’s take 100 calories, not much, just about one English muffin (without butter) for instance.
Adding a small amount of calories can really change things as it did for me as a teenager in my first job in a supermarket. I got into the habit of eating a candy bar each day, with no other additions or changes in activity. At the end of the year, I had gained 8 pounds.
Likewise, subtracting 100 calories a day can be beneficial. It takes about 3500 calories to gain or lose a pound. If you drop a food item worth 100 calories or reducend it doesn’t matter whether this is walking, running or cross county skiing. So walking a mile and deleting an English muffin doubles your small action and the results ---2 pounds in a about month.
Work flows so much better when you find and fix small snags in the system or work flow.
Sometimes we blame a person for a mistake that really is a fault of the system or just try to throw money at the problem. Often answers lie right within the situation.
Recently, a Boston area hospital dealing with an alarming back up and overcrowding in the emergency room researched the system for answers. The usual solution has been—if there are more patients, get more doctors and nurses and expand building space. However, it was discovered that a ridged (ridged? Rigged? Hmm?) operating room schedule caused back ups in patient care units leading to back ups in the ER; a cascading effect. When the OR schedule was spread out over the week, the back ups were reversed. This was a penny well spent and many dollars saved, and, of course, improved patient care service.
In the self-care arena, changing those very small batteries in your smoke alarm can save your home and lives-enormous results. Drafting a health power of attorney can save so much untold stress and heart wrenching dilemmas for families.
Relationships are delicate and precious and often turn on small acts of either kindness or forgiveness, or thoughtlessness or cruelty.
Are your leisure activities consciously chosen or passively self-indulgent? Conscious choice to participate in enjoyable activities may mean the simple act of turning off the TV or inviting another to an event.
You can’t change into a monk or spiritual practitioner overnight—nor would most folks want to—but attention to some aspect of centering for a very brief time can reap a bountiful amount of stress reduction, calm, new creative insights and physically, to a lower blood pressure.
I left values for last as a shift here can affect your whole world and life. Reflecting on what you believe, being true to yourself, shedding old identities and not living how others think you should, release tremendous energy and sense of purpose and passion to make changes in your life.
Awareness, intention and grace
Awareness, intention and grace are three attributes that can help you make a difference with your small changes. Being consciously aware rather than living on automatic can keep you from reaching for those chips or stop you from speaking out without first thinking about how your words will affect others.
Intention gives focus to passion. While we need to be passionate to make creative change in our lives, it is intention that makes things happen for us.
Laura Day writes in her book The Circle, that intentionality is your will. “Your will organizes and mobilizes all the other energies inside of you and around you into an irresistible force. Your ability to make a choice and to stick with it –your will- is your most powerful inner resource.”
Ralph Blum says it another way:
“We are not doers, but deciders. Once our decision is clear,
The doing becomes effortless, for then the universe supports and empowers our actions.”
The third attribute is grace. Grace is a manner in which you move through life more easily on a daily basis. It includes being open to new experiences without prejudgment, staying centered in difficult situations, and acting with kindness love and joy.
With awareness, intention and grace, you can be an attractor. Complexity science describes an attractor as a pattern of energy that attracts more energy to it. People are drawn to and want to give to those who live with awareness intention and grace.
Big Ben is a complicated mechanism. But you are and your life is a complex web of interactions and relationships—very sensitive to your choices and actions.
Sensitive to Initial Conditions
Each choice you make
Each step you take
May just be one more
In your current direction
But it could very well be
The one that ripples
Across the rest of your life
So where will you start?
How will you use your pennies to bring your life into balance?