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Monday Mornings with Madison



The butterfly effect is a graceful phrase that relates to an important concept in the science of chaos theory: “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” (But doesn’t the butterfly effect sound a lot more appealing?)  The concept has been around since the late 1890s, when scientists began studying the predictability of weather.  But, in 1972, meteorologist Edward Lorenz gave an important speech entitled “Does the flap of a butterfly in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

According to most scientists today, the answer is: Yes! This is because small variations in the initial condition of a system may produce large variations in the long-term behavior of the system. A butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that could ultimately alter the path of a tornado on the other side of the world.  Less poetically, a ball placed at the top of a hill might roll into any of several valleys depending on slight differences in its initial position.

The ‘butterfly effect’ theory has been used to explain and understand many complex systems. Today, let’s use it to examine the most complex of systems: human society. Why is it two people can start at the same point and yet create entirely different results? Could it be because those two people differed by one initial thought, and that little thought created a chain of other thoughts, and those then created different actions and different results?

Let’s say you sit down at your desk, and you start off with the thought “I have too many things to do.” This thought could then start off a chain of thoughts:

“I don’t know where to start.”

“I am not organized.”

“If I don’t get organized soon, I will never be successful.”

“I better try to do everything right away.”

Then you start multi-tasking like crazy, trying to tackle everything on your desktop and checking your e-mails every five minutes while your thoughts are spinning. Two hours later, you find yourself exhausted and you haven’t accomplished anything worthwhile.  After repeating this pattern a few times, this chain of thoughts becomes a habit. Now every time you sit down at your desk, you start with the thought “I have too many things to do” and you then run through the same chain of thoughts, with the same unproductive results.

On the other hand, the person sitting at the desk next to you might start with the simple thought “I have one important task to do now.” And from that, the chain of thoughts goes:

“I have one task to do now and I am focusing on it until it’s done.”

“I am organized.”

“I know what I’m doing.”   

“I am moving closer to reaching my goals.”

A few hours later, that person has completed his or her important task and is ready to tackle the next important task. Every time that person sits down, the first thought — “I have one important task to do now” — which leads to a productive chain of thoughts, with positive results.

The butterfly effect explains how one initial idea can trigger an entire chain of thoughts that determines the final results. Now let’s look for a simple (but not easy) way to affect that chain of thoughts so you can create the results you seek.

Find your butterfly When you notice that your thoughts are racing in unproductive circles, look back and try to pinpoint when exactly this started. What was the first thought that started the chain of thoughts?  There is always a starting point, whether it’s when you walk into your office, or open up your emails, or look at your “to-do” pile of projects. Something triggered a negative train of thoughts. What was it?

Design a new butterfly Once you know the starting point, you can create a new initial thought that will lead to a productive chain of ideas and positive results. If, for example, your first thought was “I have too many things to do,” substitute that with “I have one important task to do now.”  Then you can decide what that task is and immediately start working on it. Each time you’re tempted to race off into the old unproductive chain of ideas, just patiently bring your thoughts back to “I have one important task to do now.”

It takes time and much practice to develop new habits of thought. But you can do it. Just keep in mind that tiny butterfly in Brazil, diligently flapping its little wings and, in the process, changing the world! 

"Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending."
Maria Robinson
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