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Armchair philosopher

What is Kaizen?

The philosophy of continuous, incremental progress

It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward. —Chinese Proverb

Kaizen is probably the most interesting new idea I've discovered in as long as I can remember and it continues to surprise me as I explore and experiment with it more and more.

Although it's generally discussed as a process used in business or industry, Kaizen is also a very simple and very effective tool for personal development.

The basic premise of Kaizen is this: Our brains have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to fear and reject big changes. We are creatures of habit and feel most comfortable in familiar environments, performing familiar routines. When confronted with a big change, the amygdala—part of our reptilian brain—triggers a fight or flight reaction in response to the change, what we know as stress. Basically, big changes are scary and stressful. When we attempt dramatic changes, they are met with resistence and are far more likely to fail, leaving us defeated, and no further forward.

Instead of trying to solve problems with big, dramatic changes, Kaizen encourages us to make tiny, almost effortless changes in the direction of our goal. These changes should be so small that they slip by the amygdala undetected and so our brains don't kick back with a fear response. The small change should be something that can easily be repeated until it eventually forms a new, beneficial habit, which takes us one step closer to our goal.

Kaizen starts with asking yourself a simple question: "What's the smallest change I can make to [insert basic goal here]"? The goal should be succinct and the question a simple one. Our subconscious brain then mulls over the question in the background as you go about your day, periodically coming back with creative, new answers as it processes the question. What's really interesting, is that because the question is a simple one, answering it is not stressful! It's actually fun coming up with creative Kaizen solutions to your problems, which encourages you to think of more and more.

From the outset, Kaizen may sound ineffective for a couple of reasons. First, you may feel as though your problem requires an immediate, drastic solution. Taking tiny steps will take too long! Secondly, if like me, you're the sort of person who pursues personal development, then you probably feel as though you already have enough self-discipline to force yourself to take larger steps, and more dramatic action.

The first objection is a reasonable one. The interesting thing about Kaizen though is how quickly one small change can lead to the next. More and more ideas will start trickling in. Soon, you'll find you'll have thought of ten small steps towards your goal, then twenty. The important thing is that each step should feel managable, and you should only move on to the next when you feel you are ready. Kaizen isn't about dragging your feet but it's not about being pushed eitherso you're less likely to stumble.

The second objection is actually more of a dillusion than you think. Research has shown that our self-control is a limited resource that wanes as we tire and become stressed. We might feel more than able to stick to our dramatic new routine for a few days on discipline and grit alone, but as soon as other external stressors kick in, we easily fall back to our old habits (think of all your abandoned New Year's resolutions). Kaizen avoids this by encouraging us to make changes that are so effortless, that they don't rely on an iron will.

I look forward to sharing more of my experiences with Kaizen as I think of more beneficial changes I can make in my life using the Kaizen way.

Check out The Spirit Of Kaizen by Dr. Robert Maurer PhD - This was my starting point and the book is a really enjoyable read.

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