The Law of Small Numbers Repeated Many Times

I mentioned in my last post that I have some history as a deliberate thinker. As a writer, I craft my plots carefully, working out details early in the story to lead seamlessly toward the end game. You will rarely catch my protagonists relying on coincidence to solve a mystery. It’s harder and takes longer to churn out a novel that way, but I think it leads to a more satisfying reader experience. In my prior life as a lawyer, I always tried to anticipate as many future problems as I could envision when drafting contracts, and my clients were often pleasantly surprised to find that an issue that came up years later was already resolved in their favor in the agreement. That tendency to over-analyze the present to forecast the future seeped into my private life and led me to formulate what I call the “law of small numbers repeated many times,” the mastery of which could change your life.

This law is so simple and universal that your first instinct will be to discount it as obvious. Pay attention to the little things. Sweat the details. A truth so common that it has been reduced to clichés. But you’d be surprised how many people make habitual assumptions that have life-changing impact and don’t even know it.

This truth is so self-eUnhappy Coffeevident that I’m going to give you two examples to ponder and then, uncharacteristically, shut up.

The human body produces and burns fat at the rate of about 3,500 calories per pound. Consuming 120 calories more (or less) per day adds (or subtracts) fat at the rate of one pound per month or 12 pounds per year.  Now imagine the impact of a daily serving of potato chips, soda, ice cream, candy, beer or a Starbucks latte over the course of a lifetime. Conversely, think about how much more effective adding a daily half hour walk to your routine (100 to 150 calories burned) would be in controlling lifetime weight than starving yourself for a few weeks every year. Viewed only as a one-time activity, the effect of that snack or a short walk is negligible; viewed as a lifetime habit, the overall effect of beginning or ending the activity is life-changing.

Now let’s revisit that latte. A little $5 treat seems like a reasonable reward for a hard day’s work, whether put in at the salt mine or at home tending the kiddies. But when this reward becomes a lifetime daily habit, that latte turns into $1825 per year, which could have yielded over $100,000 in a low-interest bank account (3%) at the end of 30 years if saved instead of spent. (You could double that if the money earned 8% invested more aggressively in the stock market!) Nobody would suggest a hard-working person should save every dollar like a miser and buy nothing of enjoyment. But before driving up to the Starbucks window, a deliberate thinker must consider the lifetime impact of a habit added—is the daily latte or pack of cigarettes or after-work brew worth delaying your retirement by an extra year or two?

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