How Small Habits Enact Great Change: The Practice of Kaizen
If your doctor told you that all you had to do to lose weight was to walk in place in front of the TV for five minutes every day, you would probably laugh in his face.
The expected (and most common) response is to alter your diet and exercise. And as you start saving healthy recipes and researching workout plans, you begin to panic at the task ahead of you.
“How am I going to do this? I don’t have time! I don’t know how! It won’t work!”
For someone just beginning on a journey to improving their wellness, this doesn’t sound like a great start. Instead imagine your response to the recommended stationary walk in front of the TV…
“Well, I can do that. That isn’t hard.” So then you do it.
Look at that! You’re already successful. Your brain gives you a little spark of motivation and you continue on with your successful habit until you are walking longer and longer. Then you find you crave more movement and look for more ways to incorporate it into your life. You yearn for long leisurely strolls and more physical activity. And each time you are successful you are rewarded with the confidence to take things to the next step.
What is kaizen?
Most commonly known for its application in the business world, this Japanese practice is defined by: the on-going process of improvement.
It embodies the proverb:
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”- Lao Tzu
And these steps are small, like comically small. So small in fact, that you’ll likely never fail. And the reason we are so afraid of change is that looming sense of failure.
In the book “One Small Step Can Change Your Life,” Dr. Robert Maurer breaks apart the practice of kaizen and how you can enact great change in your personal and professional life with small, manageable steps.
Small steps trump radical innovations
With every new year comes our list of resolutions determined to spark change. January 1st becomes the proverbial jumping point for enlisting radical change to our lifestyle. This is why by mid-February 80% of New Year’s Resolutions are abandoned.
Clearly, the desire for quick, life-altering change is strong, but more often than not, it fails to stick. That’s why smaller habits that are nearly impossible to fail at become the building blocks of long lasting success.
It all starts in your brain
From a biological standpoint, our brains are hardwired with our instinctive fight-or-flight response. When something evokes fear (a job interview, a new relationship, or quitting an addiction), we generally just panic in the form of stress or anxiety. We are drawn to stay within patterns in our lives that are safe and constant. Anytime we stray too far from these patterns the brain fires off some level of fear based response.
But why and how should we try to bypass this natural neurological response?
When you remove the flight-or-fight response, your brain perceives the task as a happy challenge rather than stubbornly resisting to change. Your brain loves to unpack puzzles (this is why we will always love crosswords, Sudoku, and Tetris!). So by serving up a large task or project to yourself as bite-sized portions rather than the entire goal at once, you’ll strengthen your resilience, boost creative problem solving, and calmly navigate unexpected challenges.
Start with small questions
CEOs, presidents, and managers looking to ignite innovation from within may pose the questions like,
“How are you going to make our company the best in the industry?”
Their staff, who gaze quietly at the floor or softly shrug their shoulders, have no answers to this. While even though the well-meaning CEO is attempting to instill pride and responsibility, they are met with awkward silence.
Corporations that have adopted kaizen as a company wide policy (Toyota, Ford Motor Company, Boeing) don’t ask everyone to fix the entire company. Instead, they ask individuals to solve the problems they see in their everyday job. Bestowing the power to fix these seemingly small problems boosts productivity and job satisfaction, as well as savings for the entire company
Spark Your Creativity
If you are one to sit down to write or prepare a presentation, but find that the breadth of your project sends your spinning with writers’ block, try this pro tip from Dr. Maurer’s book:
“Michale Ondaatje, author of The English Patient [says], ‘I don’t have any grand themes in my head.’ He then takes a few incidents-- ‘like plane crash…’ [And he] asks himself a few very small questions, ‘Who is the man on the plane? Why is he there? Why does he crash? What year is this?’
“To those answers to small questions, he says, ‘those little fragments, fragments of mosaics, they add up and you start finding out the past of these characters…”
Those small questions result in prize winning novels.
However, this extends beyond writing. Whether you want to learn to cook, play an instrument, or be more outgoing, what is one simple question you can ask yourself that will start you on your path?
Think Small Thoughts
This aspect of kaizen pairs with the mental practice of mind sculpting. You can count yourself among athletic greats like Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, and Michael Phelps if you can master this powerful training tool.
For example, Michael Phelps’ coach asked him to practice mind sculpting while still lying in bed each morning leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Before he started each day, Phelps was instructed to fully experience a race in his imagination. More than just picturing it though, he would imagine the feel of his cap on his head, his toes gripping the platform, the sound of the signal, and the smell of the pool. Phelps would imagine how it felt to make each perfect turn and the mastery of every stroke. On the flip side, he was also instructed to picture worst case scenarios and how he might react. Mind sculpting was crucial preparation when during an Olympic race Phelps’ goggles filled with water. Having theoretically experienced this exact situation, Phelps flawlessly went on to win gold.
Dr. Maurer says, “Within minutes of “practicing” a task mentally, using all your senses, the brain’s chemistry begins to change. It rewires its cells and the connections between the cells to create complex motor or verbal skills.”
So what does that mean for you?
Well, odds are you aren’t competing in an Olympic event any time soon, but say that you have a phobia of going to the doctor, speaking in public, or resistance to a fitness routine. Dr. Maurer even suggests you could use this to convince yourself to eat more vegetables! Basically any task you’ve been chronically avoiding can be successfully accomplished with a little kaizen.
- Dedicate a few minutes (or even seconds!) each day to practice mind sculpting
- Imagine yourself in whatever scenario you’d like to be more successful at: walking into the doctor’s office/boardroom, going on a date, being at a party, or starting a business
- Note how you feel in that moment, what is the atmosphere like? Use as many senses as you can.
- Imagine yourself being wildly successful and how that makes you feel.
- Imagine hiccups or mistakes and how you might calmly overcome them.
- When you feel ready to tackle the actual task, start slow if you can.
Ideally you won’t be practicing this the day before something that might cause you severe anxiety or stress. With a little preparation, you might surprise yourself.
How kaizen unexpectedly helped me
Little did I know that I unintentionally utilized the power of kaizen to climb a 16 foot rope. A couple years ago, I was training for my first Spartan race. A guaranteed obstacle in those races is a 16 foot rope climb. Leading up to race day, the only rope I had been able to climb was barely taller than my six foot frame. Regardless, my mind circled around the thought of successfully climbing a rope twice that size and ringing the bell at the top.
Race day came and I spent hours repeating to myself that I was going to make it, I was going to reach the top. Determination swept over me when the obstacle appeared in my path and slowly, but surely I made it to the top of that wet, muddy rope.
It all makes sense though, right? Our brain wants us to stay safe, but our heart wants us to take chances and succeed. In order to progress and become the best version of ourselves we have to take up difficult challenges and serve them as tasks our present self is comfortable with.
“Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.”
---Tao Te Ching
Maurer, Robert. “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.” New York, New York, Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 2014.
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