You have to assemble your life yourself — action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can. No one can keep that from happening. – Marcus Aurelius.
Do you remember your new year’s resolution? How far have you gone in achieving them? It is highly likely that you quit trying to achieve them a week in. how do I know? Well, we all do that. In fact, only about 9% of people manage to keep their resolutions. This might explain why almost 70% of people don’t set any goals because what is the point of setting any goal if they don’t achieve any at all? Do you wish that there was a way for you to achieve your resolutions? How better would you be if you achieved all your resolutions? Have you tried all tricks in the bestselling self-help books with no success? I faced the same challenge for most of my life and I had given up the hope of finding a solution. That is until I started reading philosophy.
From the ashes of World War II, a great philosophy emerged that revolutionized industrial production in Japan. Companies such as Toyota applied this philosophy to improve productivity and reduce wastage. The success of the philosophy in industrial production made it very attractive for the self-help club and has been since applied in self-improvement. The philosophy was known by the name kaizen. Kaizen can be loosely translated as continuous improvement. The philosophy posits that instead of trying to make one massive change, you are better off trying to make small changes towards the big change. How small should be the changes? Take the next smallest step you can. It relies on the power of compound interest to multiply small efforts to result in a large impact.
What makes kaizen work? It all boils down to habits. We use habits to order our lives and reduce the mental effort we utilize. Think how you started this morning, now think how you started yesterday’s morning and the day before that. If these were your typical days, I am willing to bet that the three mornings were more than 80% similar, and you did not have to think much about what you did. This is the power of habits. In fact, it is estimated that about 40% of our day’s actions are habits. Habits take time to form but once they are formed, they are also hard to break or alter. Changing or forming new habits consciously requires a degree of skill.
Trying to make massive changes is trying to alter those habits cold turkey. But the brain is programmed to make it very hard to change existing habits. This is both good news and bad news because we will repeat good habits, but we will also keep repeating bad habits. The question is, is there an easy way to change bad habits? This is where Kaizen comes in.
Imagine you are trying to exercise more and lose weight. The most obvious option is to either pay for a gym membership or start going for a run every morning. If history is to teach us, the percentage of success of these common strategies is unacceptably low. But why are these strategies so common if they are so ineffective? It is because we have been socialized to demand quick results, therefore we try to change the whole system of long-established behaviors all at once. But the brain has evolved to maintain the status quo, this is because change requires more mental efforts, and the brain works on the law of minimization of efforts. What if instead of paying for a gym, you start by pacing in your sitting room for five minutes for each episode of a series you are watching? I know what you are thinking, how the hell am I going to lose 20 kilos by pacing around my tv for five minutes? The idea is to shift your habits so slowly that the lizard brain does not detect any change in your habits. By changing your habits slowly, you can completely alter your entire system of habits while maintaining the status quo. You can build up from pacing for five minutes to pacing for ten minutes, then twenty minutes, until you can do a full-hour cardio workout. The results might not be as quick as you desire, but it is more sustainable. If you want to change a system of habits just ask yourself, what small adjustment can I do today to my routine that will point me in the right direction? Keep adding those small changes for three months and you will have a completely new and better habit.
The question arises, what do I do when I fall back to old systems of habits? This is often the most frustrating part of changing human behaviour. But you must realize that this is a normal part of the change. You must accept that you will fail multiple times before you can successfully change. You are not seeking perfection, only progress. To be a master you must accept to be a novice. Learn from your mistake and try to ensure that you don’t fall back to the same mistake. Meaning is to be found in trying not achieving. Learn the cues that made you fall back to the old system of habits and try to avoid them or form new implementation intentions when those cues appear. Be happy in the small progress you make each day.
Here are some tips to make kaizen more effective:
• Be data-centric. In the word of Socrates unexamined life is not worth living. At the end of the day examine your conscience and note the things that you have done wrong that you can and are willing to change. It might not be easy to admit that you are flawed but that is the route to change. It also helps to keep a record of all small changes that you have been able to implement. This serves as a motivation to keep on changing. Also, remember to learn from your mistakes and improve next time.
• Focus on changing one or two habits at a time. As we all know change is hard. Trying to change multiple aspects of our habits at once is even harder. Ask yourself what one thing that I am willing to change that will have the greatest impact on my life? Trust your instinct on the answer you come up with. If you are wrong, you will know in less than a month. I guess wasting a month trying to improve one area that turns out to be irrelevant is better than wasting your whole life trying to improve all aspects of your life to no avail.
• Focus on what you can control. Remember the dichotomy of control and pursue only what you can control. There is no use wasting time worrying about things that you cannot control.
• Seek to eliminate waste. Be ruthless in eliminating wasted time and resources. Do only what you have to do, or you enjoy doing.
• Be action-oriented. Prefer action over planning. More wisdom is learned on the battlefield than in the war room. Start now, procrastination is your worst enemy.
• Bring your problems into the open. Learn to admit your mistakes to yourself and look for ways to do better.
• Keep improving what has already been improved. If there is a chance for improving take it.
• Try to ensure the good you do today can only be exceeded by the good you do tomorrow. Build on the successes and minimize the mistakes of yesterday.