If you have not seen massive domino lineups set off into an epic chain reaction triggered by a single-piece fall then you are missing out. Some of those installations are made of thousands of pieces and are featured in the Guinness World Record Book.
The domino effect term is used to describe a single event or a small change that causes a large-scale impact. This is not always a good story. For instance, WWI which lasted four years and caused great devastation was set in action by the assassination of a high-ranking royal family member.
A single event can also change a person’s life. People start successful companies inspired by “aha” moment experiences or find themselves living on the street after an unfortunate illness.
In this writing, I will explore this concept and show using first-hand experience how the domino effect can be replicated for long-lasting positive changes in your life.
Two Types Of Dominoes That Can Have an Effect On Your Life
Firstly when writers refer to this concept they are talking about two different types of dominoes. One is a sudden event that leaves a long-lasting impression and prompts a change. People often reference it as a catalyst event but I also see it as a form of intervention.
For instance, people quit smoking on the spot after being told that they will possibly die early if they continue this way. This happened to a colleague of mine who was a long-time smoker and went cold turkey the moment he was told the hard truth.
The second domino type is an introduction of a tiny repeatable habit that over the course of time starts accumulating its effects. This is a slow-acting change that will take anywhere between 18 to 256 days as I discuss further in this post. An example of that would be making your bed every day. It’s a small tiny habit that has tremendous benefits if it is practised consistently.
These two distinctly different types can be combined into one which often happens naturally. The instant impact of the intervention domino can make a person ditch a harmful habit or create a new healthy one using the second domino type.
In an early example my smoker friend if he used the freed-up time to go for a walk could have led to improved fitness, participation in group events, increased social connections and overall increase in quality of life.
Intervention Domino – Sudden Impact and Big Changes
Humans think of their lives through a storyline with defining moments. For instance, finding a new job with a great culture and a mentor or meeting the right person at the right time can lead to starting a family, or moving to another country.
Let’s do a quick exercise. Grab a pen and draw a horizontal timeline representing your life up until this point. Now recall and mark events that uniquely define you on the timeline. Each of these events is an intervention domino that triggered a change in your life direction.
We can also purposely introduce these to cause a positive change. People go on retreats, work with psychologists, sign up to volunteer and take psychedelic substances in the Peruvian jungle for this reason. Rather than waiting for the shocking therapy inflicted on us, we can choose our own adventure based on values and aspirations.
Two of my friends struck up a conversation with the winery owner at a wine-tasting tour in the countryside. They were so impressed with the owner’s story and the lifestyle that they made a decision to buy a winery themselves. Fast forward a couple of years they quit their corporate jobs and bottled their first batch of red wine for sale.
Creating positive intervention events is only a part of the puzzle. We also need to be prepared to deal with bad dominoes that can crush our lives into a downward spiral.
We cannot control what happens in our lives, however, we are in full control of how we react to life events. Building resilience to make sure that a single event doesn’t knock us out is equally important as handcrafting positive intervention events.
Using my fortunate wine-loving friends with a successful business if their adventure went in a different direction with a drought or market condition affecting their income what could they do to stay afloat?
In their case, resilience may be standing on a stable foundation of the relationship, with money in an emergency fund and using the right mindset with seeing the unfolding rough times as a learning experience.
Habit Dominoes – From Little Things Big Things Grow
The second type of domino is like little pebbles thrown in the pond that create a ripple effect to get your life in order. My favourite Chinese proverb says “A thousand-mile journey starts with a little step.” This first step could be as simple as making your bed in the morning.
The act of spreading the bed cover and arranging pillows is not just that. It’s a little and obviously visible achievement. It also instantly makes you feel that you are a person that has things under control which creates a little tiny momentum to tackle bigger items.
After you get used to doing it every morning without an exception you can add other little dominoes to it. It could be doing a short stretch routine or going for a walk. This is called habit stacking and it plays well into how the human mind operates.
Conscious attention is a scarce resource. Our minds can only focus on one thing at a time. Because of this, our brains are likely to build habits that do not require focused attention and can be triggered by a cue on autopilot.
It is also possible that focused attention requires more energy for the brain which is already using 20% of our calorie budget.
If you reflect on how you run your day you will see many examples of automated routines that your mind executes on its own. Stretch your hand toward someone and they will respond with their hand going for a handshake. Walk into your bathroom at night and your hand will find the light switch without a delay.
Some behavioural habits are so ingrained in our existence that we are simply unaware of them. In essence, habits are the building blocks of the human mind’s programming language where a chain of commands gets executed by a cue event.
There is another part of the domino effect with habits that is a must-have ingredient. It is the momentum or desire for a change. If we are not motivated enough it is unlikely you will continue repeating the action often enough to form a habit. This is equally true for intervention dominoes. The wine producer friends always wanted to have their own business and move away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. When that opportunity presented itself the change happened very quickly.
This desire could be in the realm of a physical or psychological reward, a life goal or simply something you dreamed about but never had a chance to do it. For instance, if you wanted to try Latin dances but had no time, no dance studio close by or the courage to sign up it will create a pent-up energy wanting to come out. When you finally manage to remove the obstacle you are likely to stick around and practice long enough to master the skill.
However, if you tried salsa because your partner or friends dragged you into the class this will probably be a once-off and never-again ordeal.
How to Create a Positive Habit Domino Effect
There has been a huge amount of great books and training courses created on forming successful habits. While I will not attempt to match the depth of those resources let me give you a very high-level overview and links to resources if you want to explore further.
Let’s say that you decided to beat your friends in holding the plank position for as long as you can.
- To make a habit stick always start small. if you want to hold a plank for 5 minutes start with 30 seconds.
- Habits are contextual creatures. Because of that, you want to use the same time and place, and the same cue where possible. This is to create a commonality between the repeated actions so your brain puts it on autopilot. Do your plank sessions in the same area of the gym on Tue and Fridays
- Continue practising a new habit without skipping designated days even if you can only do it partially. For instance, if you are short of time to meditate for 15 min do at least a minute at the same place and time.
There is a lot of talk about giving yourself a reward after practising a new habit to create a positive association. I personally did not feel a need to give myself a chocolate piece every time I made my bed. After all, we are not salivating Pavlov dogs.
Having a strong drive to change your life for the better should be sufficient. My current morning habit stack starts with brushing my teeth, making the bed, a short yoga routine and supplements taking. I found out that over time completing my habit practice gives me a strange sense of satisfaction and a feeling of being grounded. It is enough by itself and does not require anything extra.
Once you formed a single habit you can add another one until they both become automated trigger-based behaviour. In my early example when the action of making the bed after you finish brushing your teeth goes on autopilot you can add a stretching routine to it. When these 3 actions become a habitual behavior you can add another one.
This is called habit stacking but in reality, there isn’t really a stack of habits. We just practice a bigger complex habit giving our brain enough time to figure out what the game is.
Finally to answer the question of how long it takes to form a habit the answer is it depends. On average it takes about 66 days but more complex habits can take up to 256 days. This also depends on individuals with some forming habits in 18 days.
The Dark Side – How To Recognise and Unfall A Bad Domino
All habits, both positive and negative have 3 components – trigger, action and reward. The negative side of habitual behaviour is that it can be detrimental to our health or cause harm to others. Interestingly even in the worst habits we get some benefit out of it.
Using smoking as an example, while it causes many deadly issues there is a short-term positive effect of enhanced focus from nicotine. Smokers often use the smoking break as a legitimate excuse to walk away from a boring or laborious task for a brief moment of concentration.
Unlearning a bad habit is a different game from instilling a positive one. Quitting something creates an obvious hole like a missing painting on a wall that was there for years. It is easier to replace the bad domino piece with a good one. You keep the same cue but replace the action with something different that can produce a feeling of reward.
When I had my short stint with puffing smoke I realised that what I really wanted was to get away from the stress for a short break. This was also a moment where a few of us could vent our frustration and have a social catch-up. I never really enjoyed either the tobacco smell or the harshness of the smoke.
To replace the bad domino I went for a short walk around the office buildings instead while chatting with my new non-smoking walking buddies. The cue and reward were the same but the action has changed.
Why Does Domino Effect Work?
So how can a single event or a practised habit profoundly affect other areas of life? The reason is that it taps into our core values and contributes to the life areas responsible for happiness.
One day I decided that I want to be the guy who always says hello and thank you for a ride to bus drivers. It felt awkward at first since where I grew up people generally don’t thank someone unless they saved their life. It is considered that paying for a service is enough. Not great I know.
A few years later the behaviour became automatic but I always notice when the drivers react in a positive way to this simple gesture. I feel that this little practice made me a happier and more social person as it is an expression of gratitude that makes me feel connected and thankful to complete strangers.
A few months ago I read a story about how buying a robot vacuum cleaner helped a person with depression during lockdown. Seeing a mechanical appliance rolling around their house floor made this person motivated to do their part and continue with the day no matter how they felt. Apparently cleaning can help with mental health and in this case, a humming little helper created a domino effect.
The other way I spoke about earlier is habit stacking when you can create positive effects by chaining habits like domino pieces.
Finding A Perfect Domino For You
Now you may be wondering “How can I find a domino to set off a positive chain reaction in my life?” The answer is simple – a lot of trying and sometimes dumb luck.
My neighbour Barry that I wrote about on my blog helped me to find a domino that improved my cardio performance by breaking things. About a month ago Barry’s water heating tank burst pouring about 300 litres of water out while he was out on a walk.
Wet carpets were only a part of the issue. Water also flooded the lift stopped working almost immediately and was not fixed for about two weeks.
The bad news was that I live on the top floor of a multistory building and had to begrudgingly use the stairs. Going up and down with groceries tired after work was a massive pain in the neck.
After two weeks of patiently waiting for the repairs to finish, I realised that my stamina and cardio work improved. It turns out that stairclimbing is actually a legit exercise with many benefits. A person walking the stairs burns about 30 cal per flight of stairs and in my case with the top floor apartment, I was burning plenty.
What I also liked about it was that I did not have to dedicate a time of the day to go for a run as stairs are pretty much everywhere. Realising that I accidentally discovered a gold mine I made a decision to stop using lifts and escalators where possible.
The only side effect is that people occasionally give me odd looks but it is a small price to pay for staying healthy. This domino perfectly fits my values of staying healthy, having high energy and keeping my fitness level where I want it to be.
How Long Will New Habits Last
Another question is often asked if the domino effect is permanent. It is as permanent as you want it to be. Maintaining a habit is a conscious choice. Conversely, a shelved habit can also be resurrected as the brain will keep the records in the circuitry just in case you need it in the future.
I still remember the karate forms also called kata that I learned in Uni. I have no idea why my brain decided that they are more important than the names of people that I embarrassedly forget. But I am certain that if I was given an opportunity to practice it for a week it would all come back.
I hope this gave you an overview of the domino effect and how you can use it to change your life for the better. You can learn more about habit formation techniques in this post. I also cannot recommend enough James Clear’s “The Atomic Habits” book. It’s a fun and easy-to-digest read that inspired me to come up with my own habits and ideas.
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