Kaizen: Accomplishing Big Goals with Tiny Steps

Nicholas Ritchey is an inventor, teacher, mathematician, information marketer, web designer, author, powerlifter, wanderer and stoic.  He is also a fellow graduate of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at UPenn.  If you are wondering (as I was) how he pursues so many diverse passions, you will enjoy his article below which shares his tiny secret to success . . .  

One Small Step by Aldo Aldoz

If you’re like me, you may have a book inside you just waiting to be written.

Or, it may be something else like painting a picture, picking up a musical instrument, or getting into the gym regularly. But since I don’t know your story, I can only tell you my own; and my goal was a book.

I knew I had at least one book in me, but when would I ever find the time to write it?

This article shares the solution to the problem of never having enough time to do what you want, for making procrastination a thing of the past, and perhaps making your life a bit simpler in the process.

Prepare yourself for the Japanese Art of Kaizen!

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once,
but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”
-Bruce Lee

 

What is Kaizen?

Kaizen is the Japanese art of relatively small, continuous improvements.

This art has been taught and successfully applied at all levels of human functioning, from the lives of individuals to standard practice at multinational corporations.

Why is Kaizen powerful?

There are several reasons Kaizen is extremely powerful:

1. It bypasses the fear response; effectively putting an end to procrastination
2. Changes become habits, and habits produce permanent results
3. Small changes, made continually over time, make huge impacts

Make the task so small, you cannot fail.

By making changes to your life, a procedure or system that are so small you cannot fail, there is no need for procrastination. For example, if you want to learn a new language, study 1 word a day. If this is still intimidating, just decide to spend 5 minutes looking for a dictionary online. Make the changes or tasks so easy, you cannot fail. Once you’ve mastered these small changes, you can always make them a little more challenging, as long as they’re still so small that you cannot fail.

Achievement by Edgar Zuniga Jr

A step in the right direction every day is better than no steps at all.

When applying Kaizen, it is best to make changes where habits exist. So if you want to floss your teeth more often, put some dental floss next to your toothbrush, and decide to floss just one tooth before you brush your teeth. This may seem silly at first, but try it. After doing this last year, I went from rarely flossing, to flossing my teeth daily; just like the doctor recommends… and it started with one tooth per brushing.

Kaizen is also powerful when applied to habits or processes because these are already established and permanent. Instead of deciding to join and lose 20lbs at the gym, decide to do a behavior that will take you to your goal, and then take the first step. This may be as simple as putting on your shoes in the morning and walking down to the mailbox and back each morning as soon as you take off your pajamas (adding to an existing habit), or to your apartment door and back, or even just getting dressed, stepping out the door, and coming back in. Whatever your level of comfort, avoid the fear response, and decide to make the small new changes permanent.

Better to work up to 30 minutes of daily walking than to hit the gym hard for a month, lose 20lbs and gain 25lbs back.

Small changes, made continually over time, can have a major impact on your life, job, health, relationships, etc. If you made a habit of writing down 3 things you’re grateful before bed each night, how many more blessings might you notice in the next week, month, year or lifetime? If you start with walking to your mailbox every morning, and that develops into 3 sessions at the gym each week for the next 40 years – how will your quality of life compare with those who didn’t start this small, continual process of improvement?

Master a small change, and then make a small change to improve upon it. As changes that bypass the fear response, they actually get implemented. And since these are changes or additions to habits, they give permanent results.

Like raindrops pelting a snow-covered mountain, your small actions can cause an avalanche.

How can I apply Kaizen in my life?

The possibilities for application are endless, but here are a few questions that may help direct the process:

  • What result would you like to get?
  • What behaviors do you need to master to get that result?
  • What’s the biggest little thing you could do to start forming one of these behaviors?

Remember, your changes should be so small that you cannot possibly fail!

Let’s look at writing a book, something I used to struggle with.

Desired Result: a finished book

Behaviors Needed: daily writing, research or editing

Kaizen: write 1 sentence each day

To finish my first book, I knew I had to do a lot of writing, researching and editing. It was a daunting task, but something I wanted to do for several years. The result of doing nothing for several years was nothing. So when I learned about Kaizen, I decided to write just a sentence a day, and see how it went.

The Result…

It’s been 4 months since I started the habit and I’ve written 5 short books (~50 pages each). I encouraged my friend to do the same and just got his 2nd book published yesterday on Amazon. So far that’s 3 books online and 5 in the queue for publishing.

It Doesn’t Stop There…

Since first learning about Kaizen, I have applied it quite literally to every area of my life. From morning showers, to making a hybrid workstation I can both stand and sit at when I’m at home.

What started off as getting my first book written has turned into development of several websites, a weekly podcast, a member’s site, a teleseminar, 10k less in student debt, more hours in the gym, meditating in the mountains, and reading classical literature by the great stoics (Marcus Aurelius is my newest hero).

An excellent example of Kaizen that you can look at is a website I just started in February using the Kaizen approach – AcePositive.com. My small goal is just 3 posts a day, or 1095 per year. In the relatively new field of positive psychology, I figure that’s enough to make it one of the best resources on the Internet in a very short amount of time… and all it takes is a small amount of daily effort.

Furthermore, it is so small that it not only circumvents the fear response, but allows me to connect with people I adore and give back to a community I love.

The Snowball Effect: In less than 3 months, I have made over 600 posts on AcePositive… an average of about 20 posts a day.

When you take fear out of the equation and make good habits sticky, the results can be astounding!

But enough of my successes!

It’s time for you to go out there and learn the joys of Kaizen!  Start mastering the art of small, continuous improvements today and it will serve you well for a lifetime.

If you have any questions at all, just want to say hi or have a Kaizen story to share, post a comment below.  I don’t bite, and love to connect with other people who actively pursue their dreams.

References and recommended reading:

Maurer, R. (2004). One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. Workman Publishing Company.

Additional Resources:

  1. Use of Kaizen in Everyday Life: http://www.simposo.com/Kaizen
  2. Case Study – Productivity Increases 400%
    http://md1.csa.com/partners/viewrecord.php?requester=gs&collection=TRD&recid=330075CI&q=kaizen&uid=791759275
  3. Google Scholar Search for Kaizen:
    http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=kaizen&hl=en&btnG=Search&as_sdt=1%2C5&as_sdtp=on
  4. Presentation – Six Sigma vs. Kaizen:
    http://www.slideshare.net/pgkrish/six-sigma-vs-kaizen
  5. Presentation – Kaizen CPI (Continual Process of Improvement):
    http://www.slideshare.net/anandsubramaniam/kaizen-continuous-process-improvement-cpi
  6. Personal Blog: http://www.NicholasRitchey.com
  7. Facebook: http://www.Facebook.com/RitcheyOnline/
  8. Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/NicholasRitchey/

 

Follow Nick Ritchey on his personal blog, facebook, or twitter.

20 Responses to Kaizen: Accomplishing Big Goals with Tiny Steps

  1. Amit Amin June 15, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

    Jeremy – I was planning on picking one of your older articles, but this guest post is just too awesome to pass up. I made this the article for today for my month of happiness- http://happierhuman.com/june/

    Nicholas – I’ve recently used the Kaizen strategy to add meditation, brushing/flossing/rinsing x3 a day, daily acts of gratitude, and laughter to my daily routine. So so powerful. However; I didn’t really know the framework behind what I was doing – I think it was borne from some side-comment I read in a positive psychology book or blog a few weeks ago. Knowing the framework is useful, because I can now more deliberately apply it, hopefully with greater results.

    re:AcePositive – Delicious! I recently decided to study positive psychology (without spending 40k on a real education 😉 ). Your website seems like it will be a great resource – in fact, seeing the lack of a comprehensive resource, I started creating a positive psychology wiki. I very quickly stopped because the more I learned the more I realized I knew so little and would be unable to do much without others. Hopefully your site works out.

  2. David Hamilton | Everlution June 15, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    Kaizen has been popping up left and right for me these days. I just bought Leo from zenhabits Zen-To-Done as well. I’m advocating this approach for people that I work with in doing exposure therapy for overcoming in social anxiety, and I am a big fan of gradual, small steps for big results that seem to come from nowhere…Kaizen is so simple and brilliant.

    3 posts a day is small steps?!?! That seems like a lot to me! Shows the difference in my writing mindset vs. yours…can I get some of that? 😉

  3. Nicholas Ritchey June 16, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

    Amit:

    Thanks for sharing your success stories with Kaizen! It’s always good to know other people who are using not just for business, but their daily lives as well 🙂

    Knowing the framework definitely helps. We all know it’s good to break things into smaller steps, but rarely do we realize the power of establishing habits consisting of these small steps… and once you know the framework – it’s an excellent tool for skirting around procrastination.

    David:

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on Zen-To-Done. I’m a regular reader of zenhabits as well – brilliant blog!

    In getting AcePositive started, I made about 200 posts in the first 2 days, so after getting the process down, 3 posts/day is the sweet spot. Any less, no progress, and any more it’s a chore!

    Thanks for your comments!

  4. Jeremy McCarthy June 18, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    I was only vaguely aware of Kaizen before learning about it from Nick. But I was heavily influenced by David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” where he emphasizes focusing on the next step you need to take. Sometimes big goals or projects can seem overwhelming but if you just stop to think about what’s the single next step that I should take to move this project forward it becomes very manageable. Keep crossing those tiny next steps off your list and before you know it a monumental project is completed.

    What I particularly like about the Kaizen concept is the idea of momentum. If someone has a hard time going out and exercising maybe you can just get them to dress up in their workout clothes as a tiny step. But once they are all dressed up, the momentum might actually get them to do their workout.

  5. David M. Carter June 19, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

    Fantastic stuff! Thanks Nicholas and Jeremy. I heard about Kaizen a long time ago as an undergraduate. We diagnosed a case study of Kaizen being applied in the Japanese auto industry. There’s a reason why Toyota is know for quality.

    I very much appreciate you bringing Kaizen back into my consciousness. I teach a course on ecological sustainability called “How to be an agent of change in your circle of influence”. Kaizen is very applicable to this course. We use the saying, “a step in the right direction is a step in the right direction” to encourage participants to continue with the application of their visions. The biggest challenge for most is biting off more than they can chew and getting overwhelmed. This inevitably leads them to abandoning their projects. I will do my best to integrate Kaizen priinciples into future courses. Thanks again!

  6. Dolly Garland June 19, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    I absolutely believe in principles of Kaizen, hence my website is Kaizen Journaling, the whole purpose of which is to focus on Kaizen Journaling to live Kaizen Life.

    Japanese principles are rarely without worth. Their society is not so efficient without good reason. I learned about Kaizen from manufacturing industry, but it is absolutely transferable in every area of life, and if done consciously and with deliberate attention, the results can be astounding over time.

  7. Sarah | Holistic Hot Sauce June 19, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

    This comes at just the right time for me! Thanks for posting. I’m struggling with getting a better writing habit going. The lure of email first thing in the morning is just too strong. I think I’ll try Kaizen and just write for 5 minutes before I check email. Who knows where it will lead? I can see lots of other ways to use this too. Just need to turn my ‘all or nothing’ mindset around.

  8. Nicholas Ritchey June 19, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    David, I’m going to have to borrow your quote, “a step in the right direction is a step in the right direction,” A LOT! It’s really relevant for my students!

    Dolly, love the idea and layout of your blog! 🙂

    Sarah, morning e-mail checking is an addiction. I’m sure 5 minutes of writing before your checking will work-out very well. Just be sure to do it every day! And if 5 minutes is too much, reduce it to 2 minutes and again aim for every day. Good luck!

    Jeremy, I am also a HUGE GTD fan! For projects, I always have a “next action” step with just one item in it and where I can do it (e.g. at home, during my commute, at work, etc.). Breaking it down even further, so you don’t have to complete the whole task, but say just work 5 minutes on it per day is an excellent way to get started and enjoy that snowball effect!

    I was really tired yesterday morning, but I threw on my shoes and shorts and went out the door, determined to run a single sprint before going back to my apartment and getting ready for the day. But as happens more often than not, I walked to the top of the mountain instead and did 8 sprints along the way! The first few steps really are half the battle.

    Thanks again for your comments and good luck!

  9. Kevin Donlin November 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Nicholas,

    OUTSTANDING post; you’ve really added new dimensions to the incredible book, “One Small Step,” by Robert Maurer.

    I blog a lot about kaizen and continuous improvement in marketing (http://kdonlinblogs.blogspot.com/search/label/continuous%20improvement).

    I’m building a coaching program around kaizen and related concepts and will be quoting you (and citing you!) in more than a few places. Thanks for sharing this valuable info!

  10. Nicholas Ritchey December 3, 2012 at 8:38 am #

    Hi Kevin!

    Thank you for your kind & motivating comments 🙂

    I LOOOOVE your blog posts on Kaizen… and WOW, great job with your Lead gen business Kaizening your landing pages & AdWords tweaking!I’m looking forward to getting back into AdWords this coming year — so many improvements recently!

    GREAT to see a fellow Minnesotan & Webpreneur rocking the small steps – they can move mountains 🙂

    Cheers!

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