Why small is the key to everything: the power of aggregates

Little bits of things are often overlooked as too trivial, as – well – too small to matter, unable to make a difference. ‘Thinking big’ is the cool thing, seeing the big picture on the horizon and not bothering with the tiny details of life here and now. Although thinking big is - of course - a very good thing, getting there will require doing a lot of small things first.

Doing things in small doses or taking small steps towards a longer-term goal, be it doing your part for the environment, spreading out a big assignment, reading 6 pages of a book each day, learning a new sport/new skill, or saving small sums of money each week, is taking control of your day and your life as well as vastly improving the odds of reaching that faraway objective.

The hashtag #everylittlehelps came into being precisely because small things do matter so much and almost always have a ripple effect, leading to bigger and better things. The power of aggregates (the piling up of small things) plays out in different ways. But one thing is the same for all small things, they give a sense of power, control and joy – in fact an enormous mental reward for very little effort.

There are plenty of examples of how small actions have big effects. Think about when the UK Government in 2015 introduced the tiny amount of 5 pence for a plastic shopping bag, which had been free until then. The total number of plastic shopping bags used since 2015 has gone down by 95%, a total of 7.4 billon bags. The insignificant small amount of 5 pence led to billions.

Reading 6-7 pages of a book each day will only take up a fraction of your time, and assuming the average length of a book is 100.000 words (400 pages), this means you will read 6 books a year you are not reading now. This will make you appreciate what a time commitment Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates each make to reading by making it through 26 and 50 books a year respectively. Warren Buffett - arguably the world’s most successful investor - is famous for reading 500 pages of material each day. Think you can never reach that? Start small. And reading will make you smarter. Fact.

Learning a new skill or practising a new sport are real beneficiaries of small steps too. Doing a bit of learning each day or each couple of days brings a skill to life. That ‘practice makes perfect’ is proven to be true and applies to almost everything. Malcolm Gladwell illustrated in his book ‘Outliers’ how practice over a long time (he claims 10,000 hours) leads to excellence. In fact, practicing anything daily will lead to you to being very good at it. The late Professor of Cognitive Psychology at University College Dublin, Aiden Moran, famously stated that “there is no such thing as a difficult task – only an unpractised one”.

Another area where small aggregates show their full force is in saving & investing money. Putting away small sums of money every week (the price of a few coffees or one night out) will, over time, create a lovely little nest egg without it feeling as if it were a financial sacrifice. It is just the simple maths of compounding interest. Fast rising interest rates at this time are very helpful and saving now is a better proposition than it has been for a long while (UK and US rates may soon be around 4%).

Small things deserve attention as the concept of big results = many small actions + time holds true in almost anything. Visualise being able to play that piano piece perfectly next month; of having read that book you always meant to read in two months’ time from now; of being ready before a deadline; knowing that skipping two Starbuck’s coffees a week and saving the money instead will – over the years - help you get to an amount that will make a difference.

Small really is beautiful, don’t underestimate it. If you want to ‘see’ the effect of small in action, put a pin/pebble or pound in a box every day and see how quickly it fills. That may be the best method to remind you about the power of aggregating. One small step at the time.