Small is Beautiful

Categories: Winnthinks

I’ve just enjoyed reading ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a book about epidemics, and explores the factors that combine to make something go viral – be it a disease, or a social movement, or a fashion craze – and it’s quite fascinating.

One chapter talks about how New Yorkers reclaimed their city from a terrifying crime epidemic in the 1980’s. At that time, New York was one of the most violent and dangerous cities on the planet. Yet within two years, in the early 1990’s, the murder rate was reduced by two-thirds and overall crime was halved. How they did it provides an eye-popping message about the Power of the Small, and how lots of little, targeted changes can add up to an astonishing end result. I believe the same principles can be applied to the changes we want to see in our own lives, families, places of work, communities. See what you think…

The authorities in New York introduced a policy called ‘Broken Windows’. Briefly, it spelt zero tolerance for petty crimes, such as breaking windows, fare dodging, graffiti and spitting in the street. Although every policeman’s instinct was to let the small stuff go and focus on solving major crimes, they found that by targeting minor misdemeanours and anti-social behaviour, they caught many bigger criminals in the same net. After all, career muggers are unlikely to pay their subway fare, are they? The policy also reinforced to ordinary citizens that doing the decent thing was still worthwhile and did not go unnoticed.

When you and I try to make changes we usually have a Big Goal in mind – being three stone lighter, running a marathon, gaining a degree, becoming head of department, finding the ideal partner. Those Big Goals are hugely important and we must keep our eyes fixed on them for our inspiration.

But if we take the Broken Windows approach to getting there, we give ourselves lots of small triumphs to celebrate along the way. Running on the spot during the TV commercial breaks; sticking to one task at a time for 20 minutes; using a smaller dinner plate for a month instead of rushing into the next faddy diet. It makes the journey to achievement so much easier.

So try this: write down your Big Goal, then list under it all the little steps you could take to start moving towards it. Then find one, or possibly two, to commit to doing for a set amount of time and to a certain standard or frequency. Then, at the end of the set period, review what you have done, celebrate it, and add another small action.

Tiny steps add up to big, big outcomes, so enjoy the process!


  1. I think this is something that we all need to be reminded of on a regular basis. The big goals are worthwhile but seem almost unachievable. Breaking things down and concentrating on establishing a habit for a much easier, achievable thing is something that is much harder to find an excuse not to do. And by doing it we move closer to our goal much more quickly than we might imagine. Thanks for the story Rebecca.

  2. Hi Tracey, and thank you for your beautifully considered reply. Here’s to a productive day for us both, achieving lots of important little things. For you, that will be a mile at a time on the bike, I’m guessing!

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