Small Decisions Make a Big Impact


It’s easy to believe that our small decisions have minimal impact on our career success. 

We tend to frame success (and failure) in terms of big decisions, but the truth is that smaller decisions, even those that take only a second to make, can have lasting repercussions.

Last second plays win or lose sports games all the time. And consider how many lives are ended in highway crashes by a few seconds of texting. 

Smaller choices set the trajectory for your future career and influence the choices you make in the future. Your small decisions make a big impact.

Success or failure isn't determined by huge sweeping changes, but by how you handle the little choices in front of you every day. Small Decisions Make a Big Impact Share on X

The Importance of Small Decisions

In his excellent book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the 1 Percent Rule. The 1 Percent rule states that over time the majority of the rewards in a given field will accumulate to the people, teams, and organizations that maintain a 1 percent advantage over the alternatives.

The idea isn’t that success or failure is determined by huge sweeping changes, but by how you handle the little choices in front of you every day.

Consider the following scenarios and how they affect the future. You…

  • answer a single question intelligently or stupidly at the right or wrong time
  • say hello and engage in conversation with the stranger in the elevator (or not), who turns out to be the decision maker on your proposal
  • speak up and ask a question vs. sitting silently like the rest of the group
  • walk into a meeting with a confident comportment, relaxed expression on your face, and purposeful pacing, or slink in and slouch with an unengaged demeanor
  • make one more phone call, send one more email, take a bit more initiative on a project before you leave work for the day

Yes, months and years of hard effort are necessary. But seconds of doing things a little differently/a little better than the next person is the big separator.

Think about it: If you take 3 seconds today to do 3 actions a little differently/a little better, that’s 9 seconds that could change your life.

So, what are some small choices you can make right now that will help set you apart from everyone else? Here are three to consider.

If you take 3 seconds today to do 3 actions a little differently/a little better, that’s 9 seconds that could change your life. Small Decisions Make a Big Impact Share on X

Maintain Your Work Game-Face

Your facial expression is a key part of the first impression you give someone else. You may not be able to control what they think of you, but you can control what they see of you.

So, smile!

This doesn’t mean you have to be overly exuberant. You don’t need a wide smile, a snapshot pose, a big ‘ole rubber beam, or a wolfish grin. 

Rather, you need just a slightly open mouth with a friendly upturn of the lips—a small smile. 

Consider the following:

  • A face that glows (from your attitude, not your perspiration) transmits well across cultures.
  • Smiling isn’t about being happy (although I hope you are). It’s about confidence and taking responsibility for the energy you bring to the place.
  • Your small smile makes you look awake, alert, alive, implacable, and approachable.
  • You can have a determined jaw but still have a small smile— your expression will only enhance the keen intelligence in your eyes.
  • Not smiling causes inaccurate responses to you. You’ll have an uphill battle without even realizing it.

A pleasant, open expression conveys confidence, trustworthiness, and charisma. 

Even if you aren’t necessarily feeling happy, the small choice to turn your outer lips upward impacts your ability to engage and influence others.

Maintain a Pleasant, Even Tone of Voice

A smile is a great first step, but take care to follow it up with a friendly, engaging voice and a thoughtful choice of words. (This is even more important on the phone where your voice makes the first impression.)

Raise your voice even once or use harsh, demeaning language and that one small choice can impact you negatively for years to come.

One executive coaching client shared this advice from his own father, “Your words should be like canned green beans, soft and tender, not like corn nuts; makes it easier if you have to eat them later.” 

When you talk, make sure you keep your smile. Even on the phone, a person can hear whether or not you’re smiling. Your articulation improves when your jaw is loosened up; your voice intonation and cadence is more appealing; and you’re less likely to be boringly dull.

In addition to the smile, have a calm-intensity tone and tempo.

What does that mean? It’s an audible, modulated, matter-of-fact tone of voice that is steady and even-keeled without useless filler words (ah, uh, umh, okay, etc.). 

I call it a ‘pass the salt’ tone of voice because no matter how excited or agitated you may get, you still usually have an even keel when asking for ‘the salt’ across the table. The expression is just a mnemonic device to remind you to speak like you’d like to be spoken to. 

Fast, high, shrill, studiously slow, sing-song, brusque, too quiet, or too loud – each way of speaking sends its own emotional message – generally not a positive one.

People will be more likely to listen to you when you use a pleasant, even keel tone of voice, because like a smile, that tone communicates warmth and confidence. 

Speak Up! Get Noticed!

If you’re an introvert like me, speaking up may be one of the hardest choices to incorporate in your life. 

If you have great ideas but no one hears them, you rob yourself and your company of the progress you could make together. And if you never make meaningful connections with people in your organization or industry, you will miss out on countless opportunities.

Getting noticed is crucial to growing a successful career, and it may seem like it will take herculean effort. But, in the end, it’s all about small choices. 

You don’t have to give a speech in the elevator, you just need to say “Hi, how are you?”

You don’t have to lead a meeting, you just have to share any thoughts that could benefit the team.

You don’t have to spend hours on the phone with people you don’t know, you just have to reach out to one person every day for 5 minutes to grow your network.

I guarantee you that each of those small choices will not only begin to benefit you, but will also make the next small choice easier.

It’s Never Too Late to Make The Right (Small) Choice

Your small choices lately may not have been the most stellar (though I hope they have been!). 

You may have struggled to smile or had a hard time keeping your voice even, but you can always change what path you’re traveling.

Don’t wait to start making good small choices. Take a small step now and then another, and before you long, you’ll find yourself headed in the right direction.

If you are struggling to make the right small choices for your career, consider coaching to help you achieve your goals. One of my clients stated, ““From Debra’s nuanced advice I figure it’s added $400,000 to my income over the last four or five years.”Contact me today to discuss coaching, or if you have a group of emerging leaders, for a speaking engagement.

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