How Small Habits have Lasting Changes (The Butterfly Effect vs. The Ripple Effect)

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How Small Habits have Lasting Changes (The Butterfly Effect vs. The Ripple Effect)

When a butterfly flaps it’s wings in Brazil, it causes a tornado in Texas.

– Edward N. Lorenz

… not literally, but the implication is spot on. Allow me to explain …

So What Exactly is the Butterfly Effect?

Let me start by saying that the butterfly effect is not the ripple effect. These 2 concepts are slightly different and you’ll hear about why in a second.

To make a very mathematical explanation incredibly simply, the butterfly effect is the idea that one small change in the present moment, can have a large impact on the future.

Watch the video instead!

This concept was developed by accident by American meteorologist Edward N. Lorenz. In 1961 he re-ran a numerical model on his computer to re-do a weather prediction. But instead of inputting the initial number of 0.506127, he made a tiny micro-change: Lorenz rounded 0.506127 to three decimal places (0.506) and input that number in his computer.

When Lorenz ran the numerical model, it turned out his tiny micro-change resulted in something astonishing: the beginning of the weather pattern looked the same as the original, but very quickly, the pattern became completely different.

So if we apply this concept of the butterfly effect to habit, you would say that breaking or creating 1 small daily habit can impact the trajectory of your life resulting in 1 large long-term change.

The Butterfly Effect and Habit

Here’s an example of this concept playing-out in my habits: last year for Lent I gave up honey. This was a small yet significant change for me because I always had a teaspoon of honey in my tea … and I’d drink about 4 to 6 teas a day. Your girl has to stay hydrated okay!


My habit formula at the time looked like this:

Habit(f) = (cue + routine + reward)repetition

Habit(drinking tea with honey) = (making a tea + adding a teaspoon of honey + consuming something sweet and getting a shot of dopamine)rep. 4-6x per day

But when Lent started, I introduced a new “reward” into my habit formula which was strong enough to keep me from eating honey. As a result of not eating 4 – 6 teaspoons of honey for 40 days in a row, I was preventing myself from eating about 130 calories a day and 40 grams of carbs … if not more!

My new habit formula looked like this:

H(not consuming honey with tea) = (making a tea + not adding honey +
*Lent*)rep. 4-6x per day

That said, by the time Lent ended, two staggering impacts occurred:

1) I lost weight.

This outcome made me realize that small changes do in fact add up. My weight loss had everything to do with the butterfly effect of habit – I made 1 small change, that repeated consistently over time, caused a staggering outcome. So if you’re trying to lose weight, focus less on making big changes like adopting a new diet or cutting out entire food groups, and focus more on small changes like not having honey or sugar in your daily tea.

2) I broke a habit.

As I write this blog post, it is Sunday May 3, 2020 and I have not had honey since Tuesday March 5th 2019. After going 40 days of Lent without honey, I realized I didn’t need the additional sweetness but rather learned to enjoyed the flavour of tea. I also realized a positive change in my weight and that further motivated me to not eat honey.

Now this second staggering impact leads me to an explanation of the ripple effect. Unlike the butterfly effect which is about long-term unpredictable changes, the ripple effect is about short-term incremental changes.

Think about when you drop a stone into a pond – it starts with one ripple created by the stone itself, then because a second ripple occurs, a third one occurs. And because the third one occurs the fourth occurs, and so on. The key to remember is that you need 1 thing to happen in order to produce change immediately after.

ripples moving outward in water

In my example, the initial change was me breaking the habit of not having honey in my tea, the first short-term ripple created was me saving money because I was no longer purchasing tea, then the second ripple created was the store I normally purchased honey from made less money, then the third ripple maybe was the bee farmer not bee-ing able to sell monthly honey quota, and this could continue on. So me not having honey in-directly impacted the bee farmer through a series of incremental changes.

So all in all, think about it like this:

Butterfly Effect of habit – 1 small change occurs repeatedly and consistently over time leads to a large and direct outcome.

Ripple Effect of Habit – many small changes occur one-after-the other that create an in-direct and unpredictable, yet still impactful outcome.

Next time you want to change by making or breaking a habit, just think about how the butterfly effect or the ripple effect can turn that small change into a meaningful outcome.

If you just learned something new today, let me know in the comment section below. And don’t forget to share this post with 1 friend. I appreciate your support and sharing helps me create new free content. As always, I hope you have a great day and don’t forget to make this the year of you!

Disclaimer: I am not a medical or mental health professional. Any information and content on my website is not a substitute for professional health advice.


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