Small Decisions for a Big Life.

Small Decisions Big Life by Cathy Jacob at

Liam and Maddie at White Point Beach Resort, Hunts Point, Nova Scotia.

If you’d rather listen than read, go to my podcast, Sound Insight, Season 2, episode 15.

A Simple Way To Make Everyday Choices That Matter.

These days I’ve been hanging out a fair bit with a 5- and 7-year-old. I’m seven years into this grandmother gig and so far, it’s way easier and more fun than parenting.

But here’s the funny thing about it.

Sometimes, it’s more fun in retrospect than it is in the actual moment.

As any parent will tell you, little kids demand a lot of patience. They demand the ability to hang in with stuff long after you’ve lost interest. One of the things I learned early on is that my grandkids do not have short attention spans. It’s their grandmother who has the short attention span.

There’s only so much doll-dressing, tiny vehicle-driving, bed-jumping, or living room fort-building I can take. Further, little kids are bossy. They complain about your food, and they are too fond of potty humor. Being called “Poopy Bum” 50 times is just not that funny.

So, I’m not ashamed to admit, there are times when I’d rather be doing something else. Like reading a good book or sipping a cool drink on a beach chair. Especially when the alternative is jumping in the frigid waters of the north Atlantic.

This little bit of grandmother torture occurred at a family resort in the south shore of Nova Scotia this summer.

My grandkids are well aware that I have a profound aversion to cold water or simply getting wet, for that matter. I’m a bit like a cat in that regard. So, this summer, when they asked me to wade into the 63-degree Fahrenheit / 17-degree Celsius ocean water, my response was quick and definitive.


They would have to settle on jumping waves with their grandfather, who is built of hardier stuff than I am.

This, of course, was insufficient.

“Please Meme, come in with us. It’s not that cold.”

Did I tell you that little kids lie?

“Don’t you lie to me,” I warned. So, they backtracked.

“Well, it’s not VERY cold. You’ll get used to it! PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE.”

Did I mention that little kids are not too proud to beg?

This was one of those decisions that on the surface seemed a no-brainer. In the scheme of things, me joining them in the freezing water was not going to make or break their holiday. They would still get to go in it. It wasn’t going to result in some deep trauma that would color the rest of their lives. There would be other, warmer ways to bond with them on this holiday.

I was just about to respond with another, more definitive no, when something made me stop. This reminded me of many tiny decisions just like this one in my life that I now regret. Decisions I made when my kids were this age. The too many times I said no to their invitations to play because I didn’t have the time, I had to work, or I was too tired. 

It struck me in that moment that these seemingly insignificant decisions we make every day are what really matter. These tiny choices are the building blocks of a rich, fulfilling, and meaningful life.

This doesn’t only apply to parenting or grandparenting.

We face small choice points like this all the time. As individual decisions they don’t matter much. It’s in their cumulative sweep over time that they make a difference. These tiny decisions when gathered together have a massive impact on the trajectory of our lives and the lives of those we care about.

It seems to me that most personal decisions fall into one or more of these three buckets:

  1. The things I want to do.
  2. The things I should do.
  3. The things I’ll be glad I did.

The “want” bucket.

I’ve learned the hard way, that what I typically want in the moment has little connection to my longer-term well-being. I want to devour that box of chocolate chip cookies. I want to binge watch Netflix. Or I want to curl up in the fetal position and pull a blanket over my head. Little good comes from any of these decisions. Also, there’s a significant body of research that says we are astonishingly bad at predicting what will make us happy. As a result, we have a habit of chasing things that ultimately lead to misery.

It’s good to know what you want and constantly denying yourself life’s little pleasures is not a recipe for a happy life either. But the “want bucket” is not the only bucket to consider.

The ”should” bucket.

In coaching sessions, my ears perk up every time I hear the word should. If I hear it a lot, it’s a signal to get curious. I sometimes counsel people to be wary of the word “should.” There is nothing that sucks the joy out of life faster than filling your life with “shoulds.”

Usually, should decisions are motivated by avoiding guilt, seeking approval, or responding to what is expected. They are motivated by how you will be perceived by others. This can lead to resentment, bitterness, and a sense of being at the mercy of everyone else’s expectations.

Should decisions are not always bad decision. Sometimes should means should. But if should becomes a way of life, life becomes one big fat string of obligations.

The “I’ll be glad I did” bucket.

When buckets one and two produce different answers, bucket number three is a great place to look.

It seems to me that bucket three holds the key to a more fulfilling and meaningful life. It’s the choice to do the things my future self will be grateful I did.

It’s reflecting on the question:

How will I feel later if I choose this now?

As I look back on my life, will I be happy with this decision?

While this seems like a contradiction of what I’ve just said, that we are not great at predicting what will make us happy in the future. This question actually points to something deeper. This is not so much a check-in with your future self as a check-in with your values and your sense of what really matters.

I will be glad I did it because deep in my heart I know it is the right thing to do. Or I know in my soul that this is what I want to have done in my short time on this planet.

This was what my heart and soul were telling me on that beach this summer.

There was not a cell in my body that wanted to step into those frigid waves. I could see that even my stalwart husband was struggling to stay in the water.

But as I stood on the sand watching those children and their grandfather shrieking, jumping, and laughing in the waves, I knew the choice I needed to make.

I knew that the “in the moment” experience would be, well… nasty. I knew that the water would take my breath away, make my feet cramp, and make my legs go numb. I was pretty sure I would only be able to stand it in very tiny doses.

But I also knew that the choice to run screaming toward the water was more important than avoiding feeling wet, cold, and uncomfortable. I would be sharing in memory making for those little kids and for us.  I knew that the cold water would make me feel alive and bring me fully into the present moment with these precious human beings who I adore.

I was right.

In those first few moments, it was horrible. In the next few moments, it was sort of fun.

And then it was, “RETREAT, RETREAT, RETREAT” as we scampered out of the water and back to the sand. This quickly became a game of running in and out of the waves until my feet and legs were so numb I couldn’t feel anything.

In retrospect, it was a blast.

As I write this, it is a treasured memory and I’m glad I chose it.

What tiny decisions have made a big impact on your life? Looking back, what are you really glad you did?

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    Cathy Jacob

    I'm Cathy Jacob. I am a writer, coach and co-founder of Fire Inside Leadership. After two decades of coaching leaders on how to inspire while navigating the challenges of demanding careers and lives, I’ve created this site to share the best of what I’ve learned from my courageous clients and leaders in the fields of psychology, leadership, philosophy and neuroscience on what it takes to live an inspired life.

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