It often feels like our lives are shaped by big events. Looking back at an unexpected promotion, a health scare, or even just a surprisingly large tax return, we see a lot of change taking place over a short period of time and attribute the cause to the event itself. It’s easy to forget, though, that these big events are rarely random happenings—they’re often the cumulative result of small daily habits.

How we overestimate and underestimate

Human beings tend to overestimate the impact of major single events and underestimate the impact of minor recurring events. Fortunately, we can fight this tendency (as we’ve talked about before) by training ourselves to think long-term. And in the long-term, it’s the small daily habits that matter most.

A daily habit, executed for 10 years, will have a major effect on your life. Picture the results of each of the following two options:

  • A decade of eating a salad for lunch every weekday vs. eating a Snickers bar every afternoon
  • A decade of walking 30 minutes each day vs. avoiding unnecessary movement at all cost
  • A decade of investing a couple hundred dollars each month vs. going out to eat 3-4 more times during that month

The difference in the third example may surprise you, but it’s representative of the other two: $35,480.64 (calculated at 7% interest, considered a reasonable long-term rate of return).

That’s worth skipping The Olive Garden for.

Good news and bad news: Good habits are easy to adopt, but . . .

Eating a daily salad?

Taking a quick walk?

Cutting a few expenses and investing the savings?

In the grand scheme of things, these are all pretty easy things to do. Beating cancer is hard work. Raising kids is the challenge of a lifetime. Training for an Ironman is basically a part-time job for several months. But little daily disciplines like the three above are no big shakes, if taken one at a time.

But there’s bad news, too: whether we embrace these disciplines or neglect them, we won’t notice the results for a long time. To use another food-based example (can you tell I’m writing this at lunch?), it’s like going out to eat and ordering a little too freely: by the time the bill comes, you may regret some of your choices, but it’s too late to change them.

But fortunately, it’s never too late for us. We’ve got future to work with, and each day is a chance to start in a new direction. So don’t pay so much attention to big events, and don’t bank on them. As the results of your daily habits accumulate, they dwarf the impact of most one-time events. Put simply:

Focus on the little stuff, and the big stuff will take care of itself.