One book I really appreciated – a book that combines ancient wisdom with practical application – explores the Japanese concept of kaizen. The author, Robert Maurer, describes kaizen as follows:
Kaizen has two definitions: using very small steps to improve a habit, a process, or product using very small moments to inspire new products and inventions
Kaizen seems to accord with current research on self-control (or rather current research accords with kaizen). The power of habit change and self-improvement is not about making drastic changes and seeing instant results. The power of habit change is compound interest.
Compound interest does not pay off in one immediate lump sum. If that was true, then self-improvement would be easy. There would be no more need for self-help books. Instead, compound interest slowly builds on itself. Gains accumulate exponentially through consistent small additions. Small successes build upon past small successes to produce a total greater than its linear sum.
Compound interest produces profound growth with small and consistent commitments to progress and improvement.
The real problem with the amygdala and its fight-or-flight response today is that it sets off alarm bells whenever we want to make a departure from our usual, safe routines.
While many people begin life-changing programs with the best of intentions and the highest of motivation, there is a reason that many fail to achieve their goals. In many cases, fear gets in the way. When we try to change too much, too quickly, our bodies and minds rebel. We are homeostatic creatures geared toward maintaining a consistent state of being.
This is why so many New Year’s Resolutions go awry. Many people who visited the gym less than ten times in one year resolve to go three days per week. When the body accustoms itself to sedentariness, it will resist our efforts to expend more energy. We are, after all, efficient biological machines aimed at expending the least amount of energy required to accomplish our task (survive and reproduce).
Kaizen can help us in a big way by keeping our progressions small. If you haven’t been to the gym in over a year, don’t resolve to go four days per week. Instead, strive to go for one day per week and vow to only exercise for 10 minutes.
Will this help you shrink your gut? Not overnight. But kaizen does not seek to provide overnight successes. Rather, it aims to promote sustainable, ever-improving behavioral change.
Once ten minutes of exercise one day per week becomes easy, it is easy to extend that time to 15 minutes. Once 15 minutes becomes a breeze, then two days a week is less intimidating. Then 20 minutes per session. Then three days per week. Over the course of months, one may begin exercising 3-4 days while barely registering the increases of exertion.
Our limbic system is always on guard for threats that may disrupt our status-quo – even if those “threats” are actually good for our health like eating more vegetables or taking up more exercise. Therefore, it behooves us to keep our changes small and “under the radar.”
If you ever feel yourself dreading the activity or making excuses for not performing it, it’s time to cut back on the size of the step.
I have had to do this in the past. Some activities, like my daily meditation, have slowly devolved into chores. Sometimes I have lost whole days to procrastination because I would refuse to sit down for 18-20 minutes and meditate.
The solution is simple. If you dread doing a certain activity, make the activity shorter or easier to accomplish.
So I scaled back my meditation time to ten minutes in the morning. Since this move, my adherence has been nearly perfect. It’s only ten minutes. Even if I am tired, bored, or antsy, ten minutes is not too much to ask. And if it becomes too much in the future, then eight minutes is not too much to ask.
These “steps backward” need not be permanent. The purpose of kaizen, in this case, is to keep us consistent. While our ideal self would have all the motivation and discipline in the world to demolish our to-do lists, this is rarely the case.
Many self-discipline gurus tell people to “suck it up” and persist through your lack of motivation. In some respects, this is sound advice. The best gains are not made when we are the most motivated, but rather when we maintain consistency through flagging motivation.
But sometimes it is beneficial to scale back our habits to ensure consistency during motivational dry spells. Sometimes it is beneficial to struggle through a subpar workout or a shorter meditation session simply to “keep the streak.” Do at least something today so you can go harder tomorrow. Rather than berate ourselves about our lack of motivation, we could benefit from becoming curious.
“How can I make this behavior easier to accomplish?”
“What is the minimum effort required to accomplish this task?”
By taking steps so tiny that they seem trivial or even laughable, you’ll sail calmly past obstacles that have defeated you before.
This is the essence of kaizen. If you change one thing at a time in gradual steps, fundamental changes for the better unfold over months and years. Kaizen is about playing the long game. It’s about anticipating a long life of gradual and sustainable growth. Great successes do not often arise “overnight” regardless of what the media wants us to believe. For most of us, accomplishment stems from making small consistent changes over long periods of time. Success is spilling water onto our rocky obstacles one drop at a time until those rocks erode away.
If you wish to profoundly change your life for the better, you may benefit from thinking small.