The Art of Continuous Improvement

Jake Moening
Aug 2 · 5 min read

Most of us have ridden the life-change roller-coaster; many of us have done so many many times *cough* that’s me *cough*. What is the life change roller-coaster you ask? Tell me if this tale sounds familiar.

Day 1

You wake up one day and look into the mirror. You see a person looking back at you that you barely recognize and realize something has got to change. It’s time to finally start taking care of this body of yours. Immediately you have big plans: diet plans, meal plans, gym plans, all the plans! This is followed by buying a gym membership, loading the fridge with vegetables and chicken breasts, and buying $1,000 worth of workout equipment, apps, cooking tools and other accessories to help you on this journey. It’s finally time! You are going to make the big change. Nothing can stop the momentum!

Day 2

Breakfast starts off with a healthy bowl of oatmeal and a piece of fruit. You have a few stressful meetings at work and when lunch rolls around you head to the gym to get in some exercise and blow off some steam. It’s a little harder than you remember and by the time you get back to work you are wobbly and famished as you gobble down your small salad and reheated chicken breast. More stressful work ensues.

Once you get home from your less than ideal workday you feel as though you haven’t eaten all day; the hunger is real. Your muscles now ache from being abruptly woken from their ten year desk-job slumber and are making their displeasure known. You open the fridge and stare into the living hell you built yourself out of kale and carrot sticks.

As you stare in dismay at the cornucopia of greens lining the fridge you think, “Well… I did do really well this morning; maybe I deserve a little cheat for today.”

Later that evening

Your mind registers that it’s getting late and you are supposed to be up early to start those two-a-day gym sessions and are supposed to be meeting with that expensive personal trainer for the first time. You look around at the hot-mess you’ve become since you arrived home from work.

The empty pizza box and mostly empty two liter bottle of Mountain Dew sit mocking you as you queue up another re-run of “The Biggest Loser” on the TV nearby.

Day 3

You never quite got up the energy to get to that early gym session and ended up canceling the personal trainer losing only part of your investment. A colleague is retiring today so it’d be rude if you didn’t skip your lunch gym-session and go grab a bite with your co-workers.

By the time you get home that night you have reached the bottom of the roller-coaster. You are back where you started and all the motivation has left along with a whole lot of your hard earned money. All the changes you tried to make and all that money you spent is for naught. Nothing seems to have stuck and now you just feel like a failure. That feeling only compounds the issue as you begin eating those feelings.

A different approach

After many different rides on this coaster in various facets of my life I’ve learned there is really only one effective way to implement these changes in myself. That way, for me, is using kaizen. Kaizen is a concept from Japan of making continuous change, in my case it’s continuous gradual change instead of massive instant change. After all, it’s hard to change your diet and your workout routine to match some healthy ideal overnight. But it’s easy to eat one piece of fruit with breakfast, or park a few rows further away every time you go to the store.

The idea is that you choose a few small things to change every week or month and just concentrate on those. They won’t bring you to your ultimate goal by themselves, but they are small enough that you won’t mind doing them until they become a habit. Besides, the small changes can actually be incredibly powerful over time. The all-knowing internet tells me it takes about 21 days of doing something to make it a habit. I feel like that’s pretty accurate based on my own experience. I notice it takes me about a month to create a habit from something I start doing.

Having done this for the better part of a year I can tell you that I’ve seen far more success in changing my life for the better this way then I ever have with a radical overnight change.

My Kaizen

Along my path I’ve changed many things to improve my life. As a rule, I try to choose 4 or 5 items to work on every month and then I track them in Google Sheets. I just add an X in a column if I managed to do the task and nothing if I don’t. It’s easy to track and see how well I’m doing.

If I’m having a hard time completing one of the items consistently I may re-use it in the following month’s kaizen or I may break it down into smaller bits that I might have an easier time with. Here’s an example of one of my kaizen sheets:

An example of my kaizen tracker

Obviously, I’m not perfect and some days or months are better than others, but I’ve developed a huge number of habits that make every single day a little bit better for me. Here are a few examples of kaizen tasks that I’ve used:

  • Stretch every morning
  • Eat at least 2 vegetables per day
  • Don’t drink soda
  • Don’t eat fast food
  • Only drink one coffee per day
  • Meditate for 5 min each day
  • Update / look-over the budget each morning
  • Spend 15 min working in the yard every day
  • Spend 30 min cleaning the house every day

Aside from my monthly kaizen tracker, I try each month to think of one thing that I did to make my life better. This item is generally related to the items in my kaizen tracker for the month.

Conclusion

The possibilities are endless. You can take nearly any major life goal and break it down into little kaizen tasks to help get you there. Some people can make all the big changes at once, but for the rest of us this might be the next best solution. Does this seem like something that would work for you? What other kaizen tasks would you consider to help reach your goals?

Jake Moening

Written by

Married, software-developing, backpacking, photographing, cooking, father of three. https://www.codecutting.com

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