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Falling dominos & small habits

"Change can take years before it happens all at once."

– James Clear

In 2009, Dr. Stephen Morris staged a dazzling domino experiment.


The first domino is so tiny (only 5 millimeters tall and a tad over 1 millimeter thick) that it needs to be handled with tweezers.

Each subsequent domino is 1.5x larger than the previous one.

The 13th domino is as tall as a 4-year-old boy (about 1 meter tall) and weighs 45kg. 

And it falls as a result of the push from the first tiny domino!


You have to see it to believe it

If he had a bit more …space (and authorization!), he could extend the experiment to demonstrate how with only 29 dominos he could knock down the Empire State building!


The original idea that a domino can knock over another domino about 1.5x larger than itself was by Lorne Whitehead in 1983, in the American Journal of Physics.

For a sophisticated analysis of the physics behind this mechanical chain reaction see here and here.


What does this mean for decision-making?

Exponential growth & decay


The domino effect demonstrates the concept of exponential change: a type of growth or decay that occurs at an accelerating rate.


In life, things that follow the exponential growth pattern make insignificant—almost zero—progress in the beginning (remember the tiny first domino?).

However, as these small improvements stack up and reach a threshold, growth explodes exponentially in a short time.


The failure to understand this concept causes us to overlook the compounding effect of tiny habits and changes — both good and bad.

Why it’s counterintuitive


Our brains have evolved to understand and process information within the context of a linear world, where changes occur gradually and predictably. For most of human history, our ancestors' environments and daily experiences were characterized by relatively stable and slow-moving phenomena.


Exponential technological progress and the global interconnectedness of the modern world are relatively recent developments. Our cognitive mechanisms have not had enough time to adapt to these rapid changes, making it challenging for us to fully comprehend and adapt to them.


As a result, our cognitive processes and intuitions are often ill-equipped to grasp and fully appreciate exponential change.


Moreover, exponential change often introduces uncertainty and unpredictability. Our brains tend to prefer the familiar and known, and change, especially rapid change, can trigger feelings of fear and discomfort.

Why it’s important


Exponential change tests our patience in the pursuit of any goal. We often feel like we’re getting no results after all the hard work we’ve put in. And likewise, for bad habits, we feel that they are so small they won’t make a difference.


And so, the compounding effect of tiny habits and changes, whether positive or negative, is often underestimated. But it can have a significant impact on our long-term outcomes.

Positive Compounding Effects:


  • Productivity: Small daily habits, like setting aside focused time for work or study, can lead to substantial productivity gains over time. For instance, the "two-minute rule," where you tackle tasks that take two minutes or less immediately, can lead to a more organized and efficient daily routine.

  • Health and Fitness: Consistent, small improvements in diet and exercise can lead to significant long-term health benefits. Making slight changes, such as eating an extra serving of vegetables or walking a few extra steps each day, can result in improved fitness, weight management, and overall well-being over the years.

  • Saving and Investing: Regularly saving and investing even small amounts of money can lead to substantial wealth accumulation over time due to compound interest. The earlier you start, the more time your investments have to grow exponentially.

  • Learning and Skill Development: Spending a few minutes each day reading, practicing a musical instrument, or learning a new language can lead to impressive mastery and expertise over time. The compounding effect of continuous learning is remarkable.

Negative Compounding Effects:


  • Unhealthy Habits: Small, seemingly insignificant unhealthy habits, such as eating sugary snacks or smoking a single cigarette, can accumulate over time and lead to chronic health issues or addiction.

  • Procrastination: Procrastination is a negative habit that can compound over time, causing missed opportunities and increased stress as deadlines approach.

  • Financial Neglect: Failing to address small financial issues, such as credit card debt or poor spending habits, can lead to significant financial challenges down the road.

  • Environmental Impact: The cumulative effect of small, unsustainable practices, such as excessive energy consumption or single-use plastic usage, can have a detrimental impact on the environment over time.

The power of small, daily improvements, when consistently applied, can lead to transformative results.


To harness the compounding effect of tiny habits and changes, it's essential to set clear goals, establish a routine, track progress, and remain patient and consistent. Whether in personal development, financial management, health, or other aspects of life, recognizing the potential for exponential growth can empower us to make better decisions and achieve long-term success.

Question for you


What’s the two-minute version, the tiniest domino you can set in place, of a goal that seems out of reach? Can you do this now?

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