Ever wonder why?
Why do you make New Year Resolutions, only to scrap most of them within weeks (or days)? Why do you start a task with boundless energy, but give up soon? Why does a large goal make you want to quit? What must you do to be more productive?
Does this confound you?
Don’t worry, this doesn’t just happen with you. It happens with everyone. Yes, all of us. Because of how our brain functions.
The amygdala (pronounced AMIG-DA-LA) is a primeval part of the human brain. It controls your fight-or-flight response. It overrides the mind’s rational thinking which could interfere with your ability to run or to fight.
What would you do if a hungry lion stands before you in the forest? Or if you find yourself in the path of a speeding car, or inside a burning building? Would you rationalize or think creatively? Or would you find the quickest escape?
If you answered the latter, that’s exactly what the amygdala does. This part of the brain has played a large role in Homo Sapiens’ survival.
Unfortunately, this amygdala also sets off alarm bells when you want to diverge from your usual routines. It kicks in when you want to adopt new methods to improve yourself. Whether it’s as challenging as a new job, or as simple as meeting new people, the amygdala restricts or shuts down the thinking part of the brain. The result? Life looks grimmer or scarier than it is.
We humans prefer situations where we feel in control and avoid those which cause anxiety. This anxiety often stems from fear — of the unknown, of not knowing the outcome, of what people will think of us, and so on. Consequently, we quit early, or even before starting the task.
But it doesn’t have to be so. You can bypass your fears. You can achieve success in whatever you pursue through Kaizen — continuous, incremental improvement. You can take small steps which can turn into giant leaps. This is what Robert Maurer, Ph. D., elaborates on in his remarkable book, The Kaizen Way.
Kaizen breaks imposing, stretch goals into smaller steps. These steps may seem trivial at first, but lead to radical outcomes over time.
Japan embraced Kaizen to build a flourishing economy after World War II ravaged their country. You can embrace Kaizen too, to overcoming imposing challenges or conquer ‘impossible’ goals.
Maurer suggests six steps to apply Kaizen in your life. They are:
1. Ask Small Questions
Patrick, a supervisor of a group in a manufacturing firm, would often ask his team loudly, “What is each of you going to do to make our company the best in the industry?” He hoped it would instill responsibility and pride in his staff. Unfortunately, his staff didn’t think the same way. Patrick received few suggestions like hiring more staff and replacing outdated machines. Within three months, absenteeism shot up by by 23 percent.
Maurer asked Patrick to reframe his question. Patrick changed it to, “Can you think of a small step that you might take to improve our process or product?” The response was an avalanche of useful suggestions. One employee suggested selling the scrap metal discarded from jobs in the machine shop. Another offered to train new recruits since employees made most mistakes within six months of getting hired. The suggestions kept coming. The unit implemented them all, and employee morale and productivity shot up.
Your brain loves questions. Questions are more productive and useful to shape ideas and solutions than commands, because your brain wants to play. When you find yourself in any situation, ask yourself small questions. Large ones can instill fear in your mind and put you off. Small, gentle questions will keep the fight-or-flight response in ‘off’ mode. Ask them often enough and your brain will store the questions, turn them over and eventually generate interesting and useful responses.
Some examples of small questions you can ask yourself are:
What is one small step I can take today to get fitter?
What can I do in five minutes to reduce my credit-card debt?
What is one thing I can do to be more efficient today?
Which small questions can you ask yourself to improve your life?
2. Think Small Thoughts
People throw a non-swimmer into the far end of the pool, hoping they will learn to swim. I admire those for whom it works. But for most, the fear could make them drown.
A person who wants to lose weight gets advice to cut off everything they like eating. A cigarette addict should quit ‘cold turkey’. A shy person should just go out and meet more people. “Fake it till you make it” is our most popular axiom.
Faking poses a problem. According to Scott Adams, faking doesn’t change our core personality. Instead, we adopt the mannerisms our new status and position come with. That’s why some people turn aggressive after a promotion. Such a change confuses us about our identity.
Instead, switch to ‘mind sculpting’. Pretend you’re engaged in an action. Don’t just see, but hear, taste, smell and touch. Imagine you’re already there.
When Michael Phelps was a teenager, his coach would tell him to ‘watch the videotape’ before he slept and when he woke up.
The videotape wasn’t real. It was a mental visualization of the perfect race. Phelps would visualize jumping off the block into the pool, his strokes, the pool’s walls, how it would feel to rip his swimming cap off at the end, and more. During practice, if Bowman wanted Phelps to swim at race speed, he would shout, “Put on the tape!” Phelps would push himself as hard as he could. He felt like he knew what he was doing, because he had seen it in his mind many times.
With time, he got faster and faster. Eventually, Bowman would whisper “Put on the tape.” And Phelps would crush the competition.
Think of what you want to achieve. Now imagine you’ve already achieved it. What can you see, feel, taste and hear? Add as many elements as you can. Visualize this every day.
Maurer suggests you identify a task which makes you feel afraid or uncomfortable. Give yourself at least a month before you start it. In that month, begin with allotting seconds (not minutes or hours) for mind sculpting. Remember, Kaizen is about steps which seem trivial at first, but offer massive results in the long run.
When it’s time for mind sculpting, sit or lie down in a quiet place and close your eyes. Imagine you’re in the difficult task, and visualize what happens around you. Now extend this imagination to the rest of your senses. Be as vivid as you can. What words and gestures do you use?
When you perform this activity repeatedly, your brain will start looking forward to it. Once you get comfortable, imagine a worst-case scenario and how you’ll handle it. Later, take tiny steps towards actually performing the task.
Don’t force Kaizen on yourself. It works only when you let the change be comfortable and easy. Increase the length and pace of mind sculpting only when the previous length and pace feel effortless.
Small questions help generate ideas for a mind sculpture. Ask yourself: What tiny step can I take to achieve my goals? Mull over this question for a few days. The answers will serve as a good starting point for your mind sculpture.
3. Take Small Actions
Small questions and thoughts are good preparation. But you have to enter the arena of action some time. Start with small actions. It involves little time and money, and even those with low willpower can follow it.
A medical clinic was on the verge of disaster. It had a high rate of patient churn, and those who stayed rated it poorly. To improve, the staff suggested steps like an expensive software to track physician time and send pre-alert to patients. But they ended up with a simpler solution — apology and concern. When a patient entered, the reception would inform her/him of the approximate time the doctor would be available in, and offer options for alternate physicians in the clinic. When the patient waited, the nurse would apologize for the wait. Once the patient met the doctor, the latter would apologize for the wait period. After the consultation, the doctor would thank the patient for choosing the practice. The receptionist would do the same when the patient was walking out of the clinic.
The result was a remarkable 60 percent drop in patient churn, and doubling in patient satisfaction surveys. All this while the wait time stayed EXACTLY the same.
People struggle with Kaizen not because the steps are hard, but because they’re too easy. We’ve learned that change is always instantaneous, painful and involves self-discipline. But Kaizen requires none of that. Instead, it requires patience and consistency. Have faith in small steps and you will overcome the mind’s initial resistance. Small steps wipe out the objections against greater action.
Set lower goals. Achieving them will help you bypass fear and figure out what your next best action should be. When you stay consistent with this process, you’ll achieve large goals without realizing it.
Which tiny action will you follow every day for this month?
4. Solve Small Problems
British Petroleum (BP) ignored 356 small oil spills between 2001 and 2007. Industry experts dismissed concerns of regulators in this field. Then in 2010, an explosion caused the spilling of 200 million gallons of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the worst oil spill in history.
Many times, in the desire to reach our goals in a hurry, we typecast small signs of trouble as ‘normal’. A disgruntled partner, an uncooperative colleague, a consistent noise in the car, a tiny calculation error in a report, and so on. But when we avoid these small problems, they grow like Jack’s beanstalk. Then we then must stop everything, go back to the root and begin the painful and time-consuming process of correcting the mistake which has become massive.
It’s easier to spot a crack in the ceiling after rain has soaked the plaster. But it’s possible to train yourself to see small warning signs more clearly.
Recall a large mistake you made in your life. Now analyze it to look for small warning signs which you overlooked. Also, identify one small mistake you made today, without judging yourself. How does it impact larger aspects in your life? These steps will make you more aware of small mistakes. They will also help you solve small problems faster by taking decisive action.
Which small problem needs your attention today?
5. Offer Small Rewards
In Japan, the value of the average reward is $3.88 versus $458.00 average in America. For the best suggestion of the year, Toyota gives a Presidential Award at a formal ceremony. The award is not a car or paid-for vacation, but a fountain pen.
The larger the reward, the greater the risk of stunting the native drive for excellence. In other words, large rewards can become the goal themselves, and compromise people’s intrinsic motivation to improve.
Small goals are not just sufficient but also optimal. This is true whether the reward is used as a part of a corporation-wide initiative or in your personal life……. most people want to be proud of their work and want to offer useful contributions.
Remember how our parents rewarded us with candy instead of toys when we did something good? Apply the same principle in your life. Ask yourself, “what makes me feel appreciated?” Then, each time you take small action, present yourself with that small reward. After all, you have the potential to become your own best friend.
So, what makes you feel appreciated?
6. Identify Small Moments
An American Airlines flight assistant noticed many passengers did not eat olives in their salads. She passed this observation up the chain of command. The airline discovered that the food supplier charged it less for salads with one to four items than those with five to eight. And the olive was the fifth item in the American Airlines salad. When the airline switched to the four-item salad, it saved 500,000 dollars each year. All this because of one tiny olive.
Most people think they can wait for the big moments to turn it on. But if you don’t cultivate the habit during the little moments, you cannot deliver in the big moments. — Josh Waitzkin
Many ‘eureka’ moments in history were a result of attention to tiny details. According to Tim Ferriss, the little things are the big things because how you perform little tasks is how you do everything.
Kaizen is all about the little things.
Remember how happy you were as a child? Absorbed in your activities and friends. You didn’t worry because your brain didn’t develop two capacities — the ability to recall the past and to anticipate the future. These skills were crucial for our species’ survival, but compromised our ability to be present in the current moment.
Take time to do little things everywhere — with your family, at work, with friends, and more importantly, with yourself. Which small moments do you feel grateful for? Take small steps for your partner and special friends. Identify little tell-tale signs of problems brewing in your relationships or at work. It’s these little things which add up to the big ones.
Which small moments will you notice today? And what will you do about them?
People overestimate what they can achieve in a month, and underestimate what they can achieve in a year. Most people try to apply huge changes at once. They fail not because they lack skill, but because they run out of energy.
Take small steps to stop your amygdala from trying to override the rational mind. Let your brain do the rest. When we carry out a small task repeatedly, our brain receives signals that the task is important. As a result, the brain begins committing cells to the new behavior. Over time, the small process leads to massive results.
Think about activities which make you feel happy. Now apply the six techniques above to break them down into smaller actions. Train yourself to give each of these tiny actions just a few seconds (or minutes) each day. Experience the satisfaction of doing them, and watch your emotional, intellectual and physical health improve remarkably.
Don’t worry about the distance of the goal. Commit to Kaizen as a system. The goal might be five hundred miles away. But the journey to a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Take one step. Then the next. And the next. Within a few months, you won’t recognize your new self. When you embody the Kaizen philosophy, life will always be a journey. No specific goal. Just continuous improvement.
So what are you going to focus on to make your life better, one minute at a time? I would love to hear from you. Do share your thoughts with me by leaving a comment.