What Is Kaizen and Why It Matters for Living a Gameful Life

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Just as a record-setting marathon runner will continue to search out ways to shave another second off his or her best time, you can seek out strategies to constantly sharpen your life’s game. — Robert Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

How I discovered kaizen and why I was inspired

An activity that has always been fun to me since my school and university years is reading. So it was reading, or rather my curiosity about a book, which led me to discover kaizen.

I lived in Denmark (as I still do today) and was about to start a project for a big Danish company on behalf of another Danish company. So when I heard about a seminar called “Danish Workplace Culture,” I immediately wanted to attend. The workshop was fun, valuable, and eye-opening in many respects. The seminar instructor mentioned a book that I’d heard of previously but forgotten to check out. The anecdotes the instructor shared from the book ignited my interest to such an extent that I sought it out as soon as I got home. I downloaded a sample, and shortly after reading it, bought the book.

The book is The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell, a British journalist and writer, now based in Denmark. In this book, Russell reports on her experience of settling in a country with a different mentality and working culture from the one she grew up in. The title of the book says it all: it is about understanding why the Danish people are so happy and well in themselves, even if they have some of the most inclement weather conditions in the world.

I loved the book so much that I checked whether Helen Russell had written any others. Her second book is titled Leap Year: How Small Steps Can Make a Giant Difference. The book is as fun and revealing as the first one. However, the chapter with the title “Finance — Got Money On My Mind” rang the loudest bells for me.

This chapter is where I first learned about kaizen and how the philosophy of small steps can improve any area of life, including personal finances. At least, this is what Helen Russell applied it to. She learned about kaizen from Dr. Robert Maurer, Director of Behavioral Sciences for the Family Practice Residency Program at Santa Monica, UCLA Medical Center and a faculty member at the UCLA School of Medicine, whom she interviewed for this chapter of the book.

I kept coming back to the concept of kaizen and how, despite being such a seemingly well-proven and oft-used approach, it was, to my knowledge, still largely unheard of. I decided to do a search for kaizen on one of the largest online bookstores. The first book that appeared and seemed to be most purchased and most liked was One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way written by the person Helen Russell had interviewed for her book. Robert Maurer was the one who wrote it, and several other popular books on small steps and kaizen. The other books he has written on the topic are Mastering Fear: Harnessing Emotion to Achieve Excellence in Work, Health and Relationships and The Spirit of Kaizen: Creating Lasting Excellence One Small Step at a Time.

So I downloaded a sample of One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way and started to read. I immediately couldn’t stop. Only the necessity for sleep and family and other commitments helped me to put it down. As I read the book, a realization came, as a big epiphany, that this is what I was doing with my 5 Minute Perseverance Game. Among other things, I was applying kaizen.

What is kaizen?

“Kaizen (改善) is the Japanese word for ‘improvement.’ In business, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all functions and involve all employees from the CEO to the assembly line workers. It also applies to processes, such as purchasing and logistics, that cross organizational boundaries into the supply chain. It has been applied in healthcare, psychotherapy, life-coaching, government, and banking.

“By improving standardized programmes and processes, kaizen aims to eliminate waste. Kaizen was first practiced in Japanese businesses after World War II, influenced in part by American business and quality-management teachers, and most notably as part of The Toyota Way. It has since spread throughout the world and has been applied to environments outside business and productivity.” — Wikipedia

As I read more about kaizen, I discovered Robert Maurer’s name appeared frequently when it came to the application of kaizen on a personal level.

In my opinion Robert Maurer’s One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way can be considered the master textbook on applying kaizen (including its nowadays well-known features, micro-progress, micro-resilience, mini habits, atomic habits and other similar terms standing for making progress in small steps) on a personal level (whether for work or non-work activities). The book also gives an excellent overview of kaizen’s history and areas of application.

I will quote Robert Maurer many times in this article.

Here is how Robert Maurer summarizes his book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way:

“The succeeding chapters are devoted to the personal application of kaizen and encompass six different strategies. These strategies include:

- asking small questions to dispel fear and inspire creativity

- thinking small thoughts to develop new skills and habits — without moving a muscle

- taking small actions that guarantee success

- solving small problems, even when you’re faced with an overwhelming crisis

- bestowing small rewards to yourself or others to produce the best results

- recognizing the small but crucial moments that everyone else ignores” — Robert Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

That says it all. In the spirit of kaizen, you break anything, either a challenge or a task or whatever you are paying attention to, down into small and effortless steps. And you give each of these small bits your full attention, which is easy if the task is small enough to solve with little effort.

As I learned more about kaizen from Robert Maurer’s work and looked at what I was doing with my self-motivational games (and the 5 Minute Perseverance Game in particular), I realized I had been applying kaizen without being aware of it.

Here are the lessons I learned about applying kaizen in the process of turning my life into games:

  • I applied the 5 Minute Perseverance Game to myself. I gamified my, not someone else’s (which is, of course, impossible), life. So, it was a personal application.
  • When given only a short amount of time (five minutes, for example) to address a task, I could only ask myself small questions answerable within those five (or so) minutes.
  • The thinking of “small thoughts” occurred naturally, as I progressed from the beginning of any game-round. At the start of a month, when I began a project (or a phase of a project) I sometimes still thought “big thoughts.” But the limited time again came in handy, and every day it got easier and easier to make the next move in the game, and the thoughts about it got smaller and smaller, quieter and quieter, and therefore more and more manageable and pleasant.
  • Again the five (or thereabouts) minutes limited the actions that could be taken.
  • The brilliance of having only a short period to work in, was in allowing only small problems to be addressed at any one time. (See also the small questions above.)
  • The points I gave myself were the small rewards. I discovered that gathering and counting them, as well as the seemingly hard work and challenge to gather as many of the points as possible, brought much more (and immediate) fun than the supposedly big rewards of recognition by someone else.
  • Limited time helped me to concentrate on the given moment because I wanted to make each little step work. Otherwise, I wouldn’t get the point. With this, I noticed more and more of the small moments, small events, along the way. And the project I was working on then became an enjoyable process, instead of being a vast and unreachable goal, something to be finished with to make me happy.

It is fantastic to discover that something we are doing and having fun with, appears to be based on fundamental and well-tested wisdom. It feels empowering and reassuring.

I am grateful to have discovered kaizen and gamification, and that I was unknowingly applying both to my life, simultaneously. By learning about and practicing these two disciplines, I sharpened the awareness that helped me better understand my mechanical behaviors (which originated from my childhood, and imprints of the cultures I have been exposed to).

Reading more about kaizen, related by Robert Maurer, helped me to resolve challenges that seemed unsolvable with the 5 Minute Perseverance Game. While I made progress with some of my projects and activities as I played this game, I procrastinated about others. Even five minutes on those tasks seemed too hard.

Five minutes wasn’t that long, I thought. Why couldn’t I persevere in some cases for even that length of time?

Robert Maurer’s book brought the clarity I needed. I learned about the natural reason for procrastination: in the structure and basic functions of the human brain.

Apparently, even five minutes can appear too long for some activities, and a few seconds would be just right. It all has to do with how our brains perceive the task at hand. Even a few minutes can appear too immense to accomplish. Here is why.

Structure of the human brain

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I learned from Robert Maurer that our procrastination might have a natural cause. More precisely, in the nature of how our brains function. Let’s consider the structure of the human brain and how it controls our behavior in some situations.

Our brains consist of three main parts:

- “At the bottom of the brain is the brain stem. It’s… called the reptilian brain (and in fact, it does look like an alligator’s whole brain). The reptilian brain wakes you up in the morning, sends you off to sleep at night, and reminds your heart to beat.

- “Sitting on top of the brain stem is the midbrain, also known as the mammalian brain… The midbrain regulates the body’s internal temperature, houses our emotions, and governs the fight-or-flight response that keeps us alive in the face of danger.

- “The third part of the brain is the cortex… The cortex, which wraps around the rest of the brain, is responsible for the miracle of being human. … It’s where our rational thoughts and creative impulses take place. When we want to make a change, or jump-start the creative process, we need access to the cortex.” — Robert Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

So the cortex is responsible for our creativity and rational thoughts, for art, for the books we write, science, music and so on.

But our procrastination and fear of doing or not doing something have their root instead in the midbrain.

“The midbrain is where you’ll find a structure called the amygdala. … The amygdala is crucial to our survival. It controls the fight-or-flight response, an alarm mechanism that we share with all other mammals. It was designed to alert parts of the body for action in the face of immediate danger. One way it accomplishes this is to slow down or to stop other functions such as rational and creative thinking that could interfere with the physical ability to run or fight.” — Robert Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

Thanks to this fight-or-flight mechanism, humans, along with other mammals, survive in the face of danger. In this way, we react appropriately and jump out of the way of a fast-approaching car or dodge the suddenly detached license plate falling off the vehicle in front of us on a highway. Or it can help in less dramatic situations, by saving us the additional effort of cleaning or retrieval, had we not caught the wine glass or pen before it fell.

The problem with the amygdala is that its fight-or-flight modus is switched on when we experience any kind of fear, or when we face the need to step out of our comfort zone.

You will know from experience that any new challenge, or opportunity, or desire causes at least some degree of fear. Any creative project is accompanied by fear.

Here is what best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her famous book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear:

It seems to me that my fear and my creativity are basically conjoined twins — as evidenced by the fact that creativity cannot take a single step forward without fear marching right alongside it. Fear and creativity shared a womb, they were born at the same time, and they still share some vital organs. This is why we have to be careful of how we handle our fear — because I’ve noticed that when people try to kill off their fear, they often end up inadvertently murdering their creativity in the process. — Elizabeth Gilbert

So the fear is there whether we want it or not. And it is ready to jump out and draw our attention as soon as we feel discomfort. However great this discomfort is. The fear grows even stronger when the goals set are not immediately achievable, which is often the case.

As you will have experienced many times, such challenges or goals might be a new job, starting a new hobby, or pursuing and presenting the results of a creative project, meeting someone new, presenting at a conference, and many others.

In all those cases, and I would like to quote Robert Maurer here:

“the amygdala alerts parts of the body to prepare for action — and our access to the cortex, the thinking part of the brain, is restricted, and sometimes shut down.” — Robert Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

So, if the task appears to be too big and overwhelming, then we either:

  • complain about it, get angry = FIGHT, or
  • start doing something else = FLIGHT.

But what can we do about this? Is there something we can do to prevent the creative functions of our brain from shutting down completely? Are there any tools we can use to recognize our fear, bypass it, and create space for creativity, courage, and gratitude for what we are up to?

Yes, there are. These tools include becoming aware of where we are, where our goals are, and what our next step could be.

But before we go on, let me emphasize the importance of the awareness of this presence of fear. I used to wonder what made successful people successful and discovered that that was having fun. Robert Maurer made an interesting observation in his book Mastering Fear: Harnessing Emotion to Achieve Excellence in Work, Health and Relationships, which amounts to successful people having fun with what they are up to:

Successful people are consistently aware and accepting of their fears. They assume that whenever they are doing something important, fear will show. The bigger the streets they want to cross, metaphorically speaking (for example, creating a loving relationship, dealing with a promotion, starting a new business, or committing to a healthy lifestyle), the more fear will be present. — Robert Maurer

Further, he insists:

Fear is good for human beings and it is essential to our well-being! — Robert Maurer

and comments:

Successful people find fear as uncomfortable as anyone else does, however instead of rejecting or avoiding it, they see it as a signal that something important is happening that requires their attention. As children do, they assume that fear is a natural part of life, and they know that whenever they’re doing something important, fear will show up. Fear is something to be recognized, embraced, and boldly addressed; and developing an acceptance and awareness of fear is crucial in maintaining success in work, health, and relationships. — Robert Maurer, Mastering Fear: Harnessing Emotion to Achieve Excellence in Work, Health and Relationships

The combination of awareness (that is non-judgmental seeing), kaizen, and gamification, which make up Self-Gamification, can help you to master fear in a light and enjoyable way.

Appreciating small moments

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Nothing compares to the feeling of getting the job done. For the day, or in totality. And it is curious that we humans tend to want to make everything big, and to view the significant things as the best: our houses, our cars, our achievements, and even tasks. The harder the job, we think, the greater the satisfaction when we finish it.

However, interestingly enough, when we are happy, we are just happy; without necessarily knowing the reason for it. Often, these happy, blissful moments don’t coincide with the job being done, since the finish line for the task or assignment could still be a way off. And conversely, by the time we have achieved the big goal, we might be so exhausted and unhappy that we don’t have enough energy to celebrate.

But when we achieve something small, we probably have the energy to celebrate it (by giving oneself a point, praise, a smile), and this boosts us towards taking the next step.

Here is how Robert Maurer describes the effect of kaizen on these small and often ignored events and our lives in general:

The kaizen approach to life requires a slower pace and an appreciation of small moments. This pleasant technique can lead to creative breakthroughs and strengthened relationships, and give you a daily boost toward excellence. — Robert Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

You might have applied kaizen (or other micro-progress techniques) already

An example for me was preparing to move from our rented apartment into our first house whilst heavily pregnant. I interspersed packing with making lists and decluttering that I could do while sitting down, and invited my mother for a coffee followed by a joint packing session. In the breaks, I read, wrote or edited my various writing projects, or attended to household chores. This might have been the first time I consciously broke a more substantial project into small steps and was happy about doing each (or at least most) of them. It was about two years before I discovered kaizen.

The following quote by Robert Maurer gives a clue as to how those small steps might feel when they occur:

These quiet steps bypass our mental alarm system, allowing our creative and intellectual processes to flow without obstruction. — Robert Maurer, The Spirit of Kaizen: Creating Lasting Excellence One Small Step at a Time

Use or a notebook and a pen or your computer to recall and make notes about these large projects, and also what those small steps were (or might have been, if you are not quite sure).

Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this story, you might also like this one:

P.S. Feel free to share your notes in the comments. I’d love to read them. To keep in touch, subscribe to my newsletter, Optimist Writer.

About the author:

Gameful Life

Turn Your Life into Fun Games

Victoria Ichizli-Bartels, Ph.D.

Written by

Top writer, author, consultant, engineer; originator of Self-Gamification — how to turn life into fun games. Latest of 18 books: https://amzn.to/3j8HPok

Gameful Life

Living a gameful life means approaching anything we are up to or what comes our way as if it was a fantastic collection of games, of which we are both designers and players. This publication is by Victoria Ichizli-Bartels. For more see and subscribe to optimistwriter.com.

Victoria Ichizli-Bartels, Ph.D.

Written by

Top writer, author, consultant, engineer; originator of Self-Gamification — how to turn life into fun games. Latest of 18 books: https://amzn.to/3j8HPok

Gameful Life

Living a gameful life means approaching anything we are up to or what comes our way as if it was a fantastic collection of games, of which we are both designers and players. This publication is by Victoria Ichizli-Bartels. For more see and subscribe to optimistwriter.com.

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