The secret to improving your life is finding a small step you can actually do.
A journey of a thousand miles starts beneath one’s feet—Lao Tzu
While we all know this is true, we often have a problem taking that first step.
Some steps seem too big, too scary, or require things we don’t have. Nothing moves forward and we get discouraged.
Some steps are not really changing things at all. We’re just staying busy but not actually moving forward. Eventually we get discouraged and give up.
And some steps are just right. They are so small, so doable, that we can take them with no resistance. And taking even a very small step starts our energy flowing toward our goal.
As a bonus, when we take doable steps we learn what really works. When we take effective action we always reach our goals sooner than we expected.
Here’s a proven process to make things better.
Kaizen – the secret to improving your life
Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning “change for better.” In English it’s best translated as “improvement”. Over the last few decades kaizen has come to mean continuous improvement. It’s an effective and highly developed method for businesses, organizations and people to take small steps to make things work better.
A key idea in kaizen is finding the smallest things that can be changed easily and quickly. In kaizen changes are treated as experiments and the results are measured. If a change produces the desired result we celebrate the improvement. If not, it’s changed again or something else is changed until the desired result is reached.
Making this an ongoing process is the power behind the strategy. A single change can improve something. A series of very small improvements can change your life.
I discovered a book a few years ago that showed me how to use kaizen to improve any area of my life.
The step that started me on this journey
Robert Maurer is the director of behavioral sciences for the Family Practice Residency Program at Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center and a faculty member of the UCLA School of Medicine. He spent years working with individuals, organizations and businesses to learn what creates lasting success.
In 2014 he published One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. I’d learned how to use kaizen principles in my professional life so I understood how powerful these ideas are. This small book showed me how to use kaizen to change my personal life.
According to Maurer, there are two strategies people use to change – innovation and incremental improvement. Innovation requires shocking and radical change. Incremental improvement, kaizen, asks you to only take small, comfortable steps.
Why is this the secret to improving your life?
Resistance is a red flag
A popular phrase for people trying to change is, “No pain, no gain.”
While that may be true for bodybuilding, it’s not a great long term strategy for managing your life. When we try to change and hit our resistance, pushing harder against ourselves is rarely useful.
Look at how many New Year’s resolutions don’t last until the end of the first month.
Kaizen suggests a different approach.
If you try and it’s not “duh” easy, make the step smaller until it is. There’s more gain in making any progress than in failing repeatedly. We start a flow in the direction of our dreams and feel great about moving forward.
But when we push against our own resistance, we fire up a part of our brain that is designed to keep us alive at all costs. Even if that means sabotaging ourselves.
Your brain likes questions
You probably know our brain has different parts with different functions. One part is often called the lizard brain. It’s the part that’s responsible for our flight-or-fight reaction.
Guess what happens when you push against your own resistance?
Yep, your lizard brain gets triggered by a scary change. Any change is scary to that part of our brain.
When your lizard brain gets triggered it doesn’t fill your head with rational thought. Lizards don’t think. They just react.
But, while your lizard brain doesn’t like scary changes, Maurer has found that your human brain likes figuring things out.
By asking small, gentle questions, we keep the fight-or-flight response in the ‘off’ position.—Roger Maurer
He suggests kaizen questions like these allow us to bypass our fears.
- What’s the smallest step I can take to be more efficient?
- What can I do in five minutes a day to reduce my credit-card debt?
- What is one small step I could take toward reaching my goal?
Because our brains learn best with repetition, he recommends repeating the question for several days, even weeks. Keep going until your brain begins giving you answers.
What if you don’t know the answer?
If you ask my wife what her retirement looks like, she will pull out her list of things she can’t wait to get to. When I ask myself what retirement looks like I find a gray fog bank.
Maurer describes many clients who have this experience. It’s a key reason they aren’t creating wonderful relationships, jobs and life experiences. They don’t have an idea of what they actually want.
He discovered a technique called Mind Sculpture that is the best small step for people in this situation.
You may have heard of athletes using guided imagery to enhance their performance. They imagine watching a movie of themselves performing a skill with perfection and confidence.
Mind sculpture is like that but with all your senses engaged.
Rather than watching a movie, you imagine yourself actually in the situation.
What do you hear, smell, feel, taste?
When you’re ready, move forward and experience performing the task and having a positive experience.
When you start, Maurer recommends committing to a few seconds a day. Seconds, not minutes or hours, because kaizen works by taking such small steps you don’t create fear. And you commit to doing it every day until you naturally find yourself expanding the time.
When you get good at feeling yourself in a great situation, you can raise the stakes a little. You imagine things going not so great and feel yourself dealing with them perfectly.
Keep with this simple program and you may find yourself performing that difficult activity with enthusiasm in real life.
What would you like to change?
We all have areas of our life that are not working the way we want. For many of us, we spend most of our attention on what’s not working rather than on what we would prefer.
We try to skip obvious, simple steps toward our goal. And we often get stuck in old repeated patterns of failure and nothing moves forward.
In the spirit of kaizen, you can decide to do something as small as spending a few seconds a day imagining what you’d like to experience about one thing in your life. Imagine something so small and easy being the secret to changing your life!
When you find your Goldilocks step, you’ll know because it’s just right for you. Take that step and move forward on your journey to new life.