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Make a Little Change

Long ago, a man named Diderot lived in Paris. Diderot was a middle-aged man and had lived all his life in poverty, working as a writer and philosopher.

But one day, Diderot came into money unexpectedly. All of a sudden, he had six figures in the bank and a generous annual income.

The first thing he did was to pay for his daughter’s wedding.

The second thing he did was replace his old, threadbare bathrobe with a beautiful new one – in bright red.

Diderot loved his new robe. It was elegant and luxurious. And as he wore it around his apartment, he noticed how out of place it looked amid his old, cheap possessions. The gorgeous robe made everything else look dingy.

So one by one, Diderot replaced almost every item in his home. He bought a new Turkish rug to replace his old, dirty one. He replaced his kitchen table with a new, better one, and he threw out his old reading chair and put a leather one in its place.

Amid all this upgrading, Diderot also added new things to his home, too – a mirror for over the mantel, and art and decorations.

One purchase led to the next, and before long Diderot’s home was completely transformed.

This pattern is called the Diderot Effect, and it’s well known to behavioral psychologists. (I came across the story in Atomic Habits, the popular book by James Clear all about using psychological hacks to improve your daily behaviors. It’s worth reading if you’re trying to kick bad habits or adopt new, good ones.)

The Diderot Effect is when you buy a new couch and then you decide you have to get new carpet and lamps, too. Or you get a new dress and now you need new shoes and new earrings to match.

But it applies to more than shopping. One action often leads to another – like when you clean a spot on the wall and now you realize you have to wash the whole wall.

For me, the Diderot Effect happened recently when I got my nails done for the first time in my life.

I’d always been perfectly happy with my short, natural nails. I garden and work outdoors a lot, and had never felt artificial nails would be practical. But recently, on vacation, I gave them a try.

And like Diderot with his red robe, I loved them. They looked so pretty and neat. Now I’m enjoying trying new colors and lengths.

Also like Diderot, one thing has led to another. Having nice-looking nails made me aware how much I had been neglecting other aspects of my appearance. My unkempt hair and hasty makeup suddenly looked awkward. Cue an appointment with the hairdresser and a trip to the drugstore for skincare products.

My point, though, isn’t about consumerism or vanity. It’s about how one small change can lead to other small changes, that then ripple out and can lead to larger changes – even transformation.

I moved my turntable to a place where it’s more accessible and easier to use, and now I’m listening to music all the time.

I read one book by an author I’d never heard of, and now I love her and am reading all her books.

A few marigold seeds that I planted in the spring grew into plants that made more seeds – and now marigolds are springing up all over the garden.

One little change, one new action, one small experiment can lead to another thing and another thing.

Of course, you have to be careful – because there’s the Broken Window Theory, too. The name comes from the fact that when property owners don’t keep up their maintenance, buildings and even whole neighborhoods can deteriorate fast.

When people notice a broken window, they’re much more likely to leave trash around, vandalize the building, and even break more windows – because no one seems to care.

The Broken Window Theory can apply to workplace cultures, relationships, and personal choices, too. When one problem goes unfixed, even a small one, it can demoralize people and cause them to lower their standards.

Then people start to break rules, behave badly, and treat each other – or themselves – disrespectfully, because it doesn’t seem to matter.

It all starts with one broken window – one small issue that goes unaddressed.

People say don’t sweat the small stuff – but what they mean is, keep things in perspective. The truth is, small stuff is always part of, or connected to, big stuff. When you sweat the small stuff, the big stuff follows.

So if you want to make a big change in your life, or in your relationship, your career, your community, or your home – don’t. Just make one little change.

Then let that little thing be the start of something new.

Plant a seed.

Rearrange your living room.

Get your nails done.

Go for a walk.

Say hello to a new person.

Or just get yourself a beautiful new bathrobe.

And watch what might happen next.

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