Huge personal goals can be inspiring but utterly terrifying. I’ve been through the same dreaded cycle as you. Set a target, crash, fail, and repeat. It’s exhausting, right? Luckily, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can focus on small, incremental gains and lead the life we want.
We will do this through the Japanese concept of kaizen. Translated literally, it means ‘good change’ — but this misses its essence. We can make change a part of the fabric of our life, not a big, loud, one-off event. When we accept change as part of us, growth becomes inevitable.
The term became popular through Toyota’s commercial use of it, but this is about you. Increased productivity is one thing, there are other components of personal development that should not be ignored. This growth is for you as a human being, not as an output machine.
Make The First Step Easy
Kaizen is the best way to start a new journey. We all know how hard it can be to start the process of growth, dragging yourself to the first gym session, or making those first connections. If it were so easy to get out of your comfort zone, it wouldn’t be called the comfort zone.
Let’s say you do have a rush of motivation like people often do around the new year. I see a flood of new people booking up slots in my yoga classes. How dare they! Yet, after a few weeks, things return to normal. These new yogis tried to force themselves too fast and burnt out.
Kaizen is the antidote. We want to make our first steps so easy that we can’t say no. Be kind to yourself and allow your mind and body to adjust.
- If you want to write a novel, start by just writing one sentence a day.
- If you want to be more active, walk 100 more steps a day.
- If you want to meditate, begin with 1 minute a day.
There’s no rush and you can do this until you feel comfortable. You’ve started your habit and it is easier to keep it going. You’ll find yourself exceeding your targets as you build momentum. It only takes a tiny push to send a golf ball down a hill towards the victory flag.
Through kaizen, we are tricking our fear center, the amygdala. Starting new habits this way stops them from triggering a fight-or-flight response. Imagine your amygdala is a zookeeper on the lookout for escaping animals in the dark. The zookeeper can’t miss the elephant approaching the exit, but a small meerkat can slide through undetected. Being small pays off and the habit doesn’t send alarm bells ringing.
What is one small thing you can start today that you can’t possibly skip? Every marathon starts with the first step.
At the start, your commitment to incremental actions builds your foundation. Yet you can go to the next level once you feel secure. Don’t worry though, you are still starting small.
If you’re doing the exact same thing every day, you’re no longer changing. Repeating the same practice might make it permanent but it doesn’t mean you’ll grow. In karate, I saw people who trained for ten years stop improving after two. They turned up the training physically, but not mentally.
The 10,000 hours rule is overrated. The pianist who practices out of tune will remain so if they don’t actively try to fix their problems.
You’ll need to unleash your mind on your task. Ask yourself small questions and act on the answers. How can I be slightly better this time? What tiny change can I make right now?
The key is regular experimentation. What would happen if you used a different approach? Thomas Edison famously tried thousands of ways to make the light bulb before he was successful. Each time he tinkered, he ruled out another way that didn’t work. His knowledge grew because his mind was active. If he tried the same experiment 1000 times, he would have got nowhere.
A common issue we struggle with is reaching out to strangers. Maybe you start by reaching out to one new person every day. As you gain confidence, this adapts to better quality messages rather than just increasing the number of messages. Which messages got responses? Why? These are all questions you can use to keep improving.
Take your growth like lifting weights. You wouldn’t suddenly increase the weight by 100 kilos. Yet lifting an easy weight won’t get you far either. Choose the balanced path by pushing yourself a little bit further when you see success. Accept failure and know it might not be the right time. Work out what you can do better next time and try again.
The Compounding Effect
Growing a little regularly leads to an even greater effect over time. This is the magic of the compounding effect. It always amused me when people quit karate after grading to black belt. At this stage your understanding is so strong you can learn in days what would have taken months before.
The famous framing of kaizen is 1% growth every day. This is completely unrealistic but let’s look at the underlying principle:
Day 0: Start
Day 1: 1.01x better
Day 10: 1.11x better
Day 100: 2.71x better
Day 365: 37.78x better
Sounds incredible right? It’s because if you grow by a similar percentage in a period then with each iteration you start with a higher base. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be 38 times better at something in a year though. That’s the exact kind of pressure we are trying to avoid in the first place!
Let’s think about Usain Bolt who ran the 100m world record in 2008. He competed for 8 years afterward and never ran as fast again. Did he fail to grow during this time? Of course, he didn’t!
Don’t confuse results with growth. As he battled an aging body, he had a new set of small questions to ask and to deal with. If your personal best is in the past, that doesn’t mean you aren’t growing.
This compounding effect is often studied in the financial markets. While Instagram-famous traders may tell you of a perfect story, the reality isn’t straightforward. We can see while the market grows in the long term, there are plateaus and downturns throughout.
This is a much more realistic image of your potential. Nobody grows in a straight line or exponential curve. You may have setbacks and plateaus in life but the long term will trend upwards if you focus on solving one small problem at a time. Love the process, not the results, and you may experience sudden breakthroughs as your underlying knowledge clicks together.
I love the areas of my life where I can never be finished. No one can complete karate or yoga. When you love something, there will always be a new challenge.
In Okinawa, I trained with karate masters who had honed their craft for over 5 decades. Every single day, they punched a thick wooden board like the film Kill Bill. Each punch had a purpose. They were still working on something; whether it was micro faults in hand positioning or driving power through their hips.
Productivity gurus, cover your eyes. Goals don’t have to be measurable. The goals with real meaning often aren’t. Think about your own life. What about goals like being kinder? Being a better partner? Impacting lives?
We can always strengthen our relationships. In One Small Step Can Change Your Life, therapist Robert Maurer shows how he uses kaizen with his patients. He instructs an unexpressive man to offer his family members one compliment a day. His family was initially shocked, but their subsequent happiness triggered a feedback loop and encouraged further caring behavior. He didn’t reach simply an arbitrary ‘good husband’ level and stop.
Perfection is overrated and unobtainable. That might sound terrifying, but let it free you. Stay in the present and enjoy growing. With this attitude, perfection would suck because there’s no longer a challenge.
Keep reviewing where you are focusing kaizen. Sometimes it’s right to end growth in a skill that no longer serves you. It frees you up to grow somewhere else instead. This isn’t about impressing anyone with how far you progress, it’s about finding what is right for you.
Cope With Rapid Change
Sometimes rapid change inevitably occurs. What can you do then?
In Japanese, this kind of radical change is called kaikaku and can be in harmony with kaizen. While kaikaku may be out of our hands, we can control our response. We are still the same person even when our external circumstances change.
Kaizen is an awesome way to deal with these life-altering events. It can be upsetting when our balance is lost yet it doesn’t help to be angry at ourselves for not magically adjusting. Sudden lifestyle shifts can be overwhelming even when they are positive. It’s more manageable to process a large change in digestible chunks.
Sometimes we have to accept a bit of chaos in our lives for a while as we adjust. Go easy on yourself. You’ll get there and don’t need to fix everything all at once. It’s okay if you don’t remember all 200 names from your new office. It’s okay if you need some time to process your emotions after a breakup. You’re human.
Center yourself by continuing to focus on small questions. What can I do to make myself more adaptable today? What healthy action can I take to help myself? Accept the limits of what you can achieve alone in limited time and know when to ask for help.
You can deal with whatever life throws at you. Just take it at the pace right for you.
What You Need to Take With You
Kaizen is the art of making good change a part of life. It helps with productivity but it can have a greater impact on your personal growth.
To recap on the points made in this article:
- Make the first step easy. Kaizen makes it easy to start new habits by slipping past the fear response.
- Mindful iteration. Bring your mind to your practice to see the best gains.
- The compounding effect. Over time, rewards may grow at a faster pace — but remember that life isn’t a straight line
- Neverending growth. Often there isn’t an end to growth so you can enjoy it forever
- Cope with rapid change. Even the biggest changes need to be dealt with step by step
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