Kaizen method: The magic of thinking small

As many of us can attest, change is rarely an easy process. Think about the last time you tried to make a major change in your life. Maybe you’ve tried to lose weight, quit smoking or embark on an entirely new healthy lifestyle. In your career, maybe you’ve tried to stretch your goals or take on bigger projects than ever before. In any of the above cases, change can often end up being overwhelming and may actually stop you in your tracks.

Kaizen method: The magic of thinking smallI used to think, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to make these kinds of changes where you were almost guaranteed not to fail? I eventually discovered that something like this did in fact exist, a process known in Japanese as kaizen. As Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu noted over 2,000 years ago “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Kaizen is a process that embodies this philosophy, which means making the smallest perceptible changes in our behaviour and actions which can lead to major transformation over the long term. By applying kaizen in our daily personal and business lives, we can create change on a massive scale, literally one small step at a time.

Small steps to big change

I found it particularly helpful to know where kaizen originated. Shortly after WWII, an American named W. Edwards Deming was brought in by the U.S. military to help rebuild the Japanese economy, particularly through manufacturing. What he taught the Japanese was that by making small, incremental but consistent improvements, their companies could become much more successful. In fact, it was this method of applying kaizen that led Toyota to becoming one of the largest and most successful automakers in the world. When applied to self-improvement and career development, kaizen takes the form of making tiny, barely noticeable changes that can lead to significant transformation over time.

Here’s how and why the process works. When we try to make huge, dramatic changes too quickly, our brains have a little mechanism called the amygdala, which can trigger our “fight or flight” response. As soon as this switch is flipped, we go into survival mode and lose a great deal of access to some of our higher brain functions. In other words, we freeze up like a deer in the headlights, immobilized and afraid to move forward. Naturally this prevents us from taking the actions necessary to making the change we desire. But here’s the great part – when we make really tiny changes that move us in the direction of our goal, so tiny that the amygdala doesn’t even notice them, our fight or flight switch doesn’t get activated. As a result, we are able to access our higher brain functions and make new neural connections and habits that move us slowly but surely towards our goal.

Three-part process

Kaizen is essentially a three-part process of thinking small: asking small questions, thinking small thoughts and taking small actions. Let me give you a couple of examples of how this can work, starting with something as basic as losing weight. We start with asking a small question like “How can I reduce my daily food intake by 100 calories a day?” In his book Mindless Eating, author Brian Wansink says that a 100-calorie reduction is barely noticeable by most people. Next, we think small by simply visualizing ourselves throwing away (shudder!) half of our French fries before we ever start eating our lunch. Third, we actually do what we have thought about and maybe even order a small salad to go along with our meal. This is the magic of thinking small.

As another example, think about how you break a habit as seemingly harmless as procrastination. Let’s say you have a goal of cleaning out your basement. Ask yourself which of your things you no longer use could be donated to the Goodwill or listed on Freecycle.org? Second, you could visualize yourself simply putting a number of items into an empty box. Third, you could carry just one item and put it in a box by the front door every time you come up the stairs while doing laundry. All of these are little things that can really add up to a lot – in this case a clean basement.

These are just some of the ways in which kaizen can help us improve our daily lives, one small step at a time. Use these techniques any time you are faced with what seems to be an overwhelming change but when you want to keep things manageable. By simply not flipping our fight-or-flight switch, we can stay on track towards our goals and focus on improvements rather than avoidance.

About the author:

Sean Moon brings more than 20 years of senior communications experience to the MediaEdge team. His experience includes several years as an editor with the Canadian Press, 10 years as the Corporate Communications Director of an international nutrition marketing company, several years in the magazine advertising industry and more than five years as a communications and PR consultant. He has also worked extensively in magazine production, corporate event planning, public relations and marketing communications.

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