Most intentions for change seek a transformative change—something significant to be achieved once and for all, in a short period. “Big, bold steps” is the mantra of many a self-help book or motivational guru du jour.
Real change, however, takes time and is difficult. You become overwhelmed with the magnitude of the effort and persistence required to lose twenty pounds, save up for retirement, change jobs, or stabilize a sinking relationship.
As with most New Year resolutions, you’ll meet with success temporarily, only to find yourself slipping back into our old ways as soon as the initial burst of enthusiasm fades out.
Gradual Improvement, Not Radical Change
UCLA clinical psychologist Dr. Robert Maurer’s One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way (2004) conceives transformative change as an endless, continuous process of gradual improvements.
By breaking daunting tasks into absurdly little steps, you feel little resistance to change.
To initiate a worthwhile exercise regimen, for example, Maurer suggests that you start exercising by marching in front of the television for one minute for a day or two. Then, little by little, ask, “How could I incorporate a few more minutes of exercise into my daily routine?” Such modest questions help you seek the next proverbial baby step and “allow the brain to focus on problem-solving and action.”
To tidy up your home, pick an area of your home, set a timer for five minutes, and tidy up. Stop when the timer goes off. [This is similar to my ’10-Minute Dash’ technique to overcome procrastination.]
One small step leads to the next, which leads to one more, and so on—finally leading you to your goal of transformative change.
“Little Steps Add Up to Brilliant Acceleration”
Maurer relates this approach to Kaizen, the famed Japanese system of obsessive tinkering and continuous, incremental improvement. This idea is actually American in origin—it was brought over by American efficiency and quality experts such as W. Edwards Deming who were helping Japan rebuild its industrial strength after World War II.
Kaizen involves making continual, small adjustments to production techniques to not only improve speed and quality, but also save resources. That is to say, it is a relentless pursuit of perfection by breaking it down into incremental improvements.
At companies that have embraced Kaizen and other Total Quality Management (TQM) approaches, employees come to work every day determined to become a little better at whatever it is they are doing than they were the day before. Katsuaki Watanabe of Toyota, the poster-boy of TQM, has acknowledged,
There is no genius in our company. We just do whatever we believe is right, trying every day to improve every little bit and piece. But when 70 years of very small improvements accumulate, they become a revolution.
Small Kaizen questions help you determine the next baby step and allow the brain to focus on problem-solving and action
“Little and often” empowers you to “tiptoe past fear”—your brain stops putting up resistance because it is tricked into thinking that you’re embarking only on something minuscule.
All changes are scary, even positive ones. Attempts to reach goals through radical or revolutionary means often fail because they heighten fear. But the small steps of Kaizen disarm the brain’s fear response, stimulating rational thought and creative play.
You can thus triumph over fear and the subsequent inaction that fear causes.
Small steps rewire your nervous system, create new connections between neurons so that the brain enthusiastically takes over the process of change and you progress rapidly toward your goal.
Minimalist, steady, incremental change helps your brain overcome the fear that impedes success and creativity
To avoid failure at keeping your resolutions despite your best intentions, don’t push yourself to somehow become different rapidly. Instead, pledge to achieve positive, enduring life changes one powerful baby step at a time.
Other prominent insights in Maurer’s One Small Step Can Change Your Life:
- “Small actions satisfy your brain’s need to do something and soothe its distress.”
- “If you are trying to reach a specific goal, ask yourself every day: What is one small step I could take toward reaching my goal?”
- “Small actions are at the heart of Kaizen. By taking steps so tiny that they seem trivial or even laughable, you’ll sail calmly past obstacles that have defeated you before. Slowly—but painlessly!—you’ll cultivate an appetite for continued success and lay down a permanent new route to change.”
- If you hit a wall of resistance, “don’t give up! Instead, try scaling back the size of your steps. Remember that your goal is to bypass fear—and to make the steps so small that you can barely notice an effort.”
- When we face crises, “the only concrete steps available are small ones. When our lives are in great distress, even while we are feeling out of control or in emotional pain we can try to locate the smaller problems within the larger disaster … to help move us slowly in the direction of a solution. But if we are blind to the small, manageable problems, we are more likely to slip into despair.”
Recommendation: Speed-read One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. It will help if you or a loved one is stuck in the rut of goal failure.
Take really small steps towards every significant change you want to make. The cumulative benefits of small improvements do have the power to produce large, transformative change. Let Kaizen be a routine that is never done.
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