If there is one concept that I feel embodies everything I’ve learned about personal development and effective change, it’s the Japanese concept of Kaizen. Taken from Wikipedia:
Kaizen, Japanese for “improvement”, or “change for the better” refers to a philosophy that focuses on continuous improvement of processes in manufacturing, engineering, game development, and business management.
Although most frequently used in the business world to describe a process for eliminating waste and increasing efficiency, the concept has immense value for people who want to build better habits and reach their goals. I’m certainly not the first to recognize Kaizen’s relevance to personal development: Lifehacker featured an article on Kaizen and productivity long before I was even aware of the concept.
Kaizen deserves this popularity – decades of research on motivation are very clear on one point: People resist extreme change.
It’s hard-wired into our brains. If something changes too rapidly, it’s threatening. Our bodies resist, our minds seek ways to fight or flee and we desire to return to the comfort of what we’re familiar with.
Although there are methods to make extreme change work, it requires incredibly high amounts of support and discipline, otherwise the changes won’t be permanent (as an example, the failure rate amongst those who attempt strict, extreme diets for weight loss is around 97%, as reported by the CDC).
That’s why Kaizen is so effective. It acknowledges that people, business and processes that can make intelligent, gradual changes often end up better off in the long-run than those who attempt a series of extreme changes.
Kaizen is not quite perfect
Although Kaizen makes a lot of sense, there’s a distinction that needs to be made when adopting kaizen for personal development: Unlike business processes, human beings are driven by emotions.
It’s natural for us to backtrack, revert to old habits and cave in under stress. There are periods when we can handle changes very well because we feel optimistic, energetic and ambitious. But just as there are times when we’re at our best, there are times when we’re at our worst. We could get sick, experience a traumatic event, go through a bout of depression or lethargy (especially in winter), or just succumb to destructive habits. Just as with night and day, both versions of ourselves are inevitable (although, we have some control over the intensity and duration of each version, but that’s a story for a different day).
It’s important to accept that even though we can be making negative progress in the short term, we can still be making positive progress in the long term as long as we’re able to bounce back quickly. How do I know this? I experienced it first hand.
As some of my readers will know, I conducted an experiment in which I gamified my life over the course of a few months. What I like about gamification is that it makes tough goals more enjoyable. And enjoying the pursuit of my goals allows me to pursue them without burning out from excessive effort.
The gamified system I developed worked wonderfully for me during the course of the experiment. I even had a chance to speak about it earlier this summer. But before I reached a point where I understood how effective gamification could be for my goals, I hit a major roadblock. I started working 60 hours weeks in the heart of winter, my energy levels plummeted and I backtracked on a great deal of the progress I had made. The entire experiment came to a screeching halt.
Where did my discipline and ambition go? Was gamification not as effective as I thought it would be? What happened to all of the progress I was making?
But I hung in there. Once my work load settled down a few weeks later, I had a chance to catch up on sleep and resume my social life. I felt imbued with newfound energy, and my gamification system began improving my motivation as it had been doing previously. The steady lifestyle changes I had made through my gamification experiment (prior to my insane work schedule) had given me habits that kicked back in once my stress levels dropped back down to normal. And over time, I’ve felt those habits growing stronger. For example, when I don’t adhere to my healthy diet or I neglect to go to the gym, I feel strange. I can feel my carefully-cultivated habits gnawing at me to exercise and eat right.
A great analogy is that of muscle memory. If a bodybuilder stops lifting weights because of a temporary injury, and loses most of his muscle, he will regain it very quickly when he resumes weightlifting again. Why? Because his muscles, which were primed for years through diligent weight training, remain well adapted to the specific weightlifting movements, allowing him to gain back strength and muscle quickly. Our habits work the same way. Old habits die hard, whether they’re the positive or negative kind.
And there lies one of the secrets as to why Kaizen is so effective: Kaizen is excellent at building good habits and removing negative ones. Habits must be developed or broken over time (the established norm is 21 days at the minimum), and the steady, gradual approach of Kaizen is very well suited for this, whereas extreme change is not.
TL;DR – To sum up this section, using Kaizen – a steady, gradual approach to achieving your goals – is an effective way to achieve goals through the creation of new habits. But you must remember that backtracking and failure will happen along the way – be ready for this. Thankfully, the deep habits you cultivate through these steady, gradual changes will be there to get you back on track after going through difficult times. You just need to hang in there and consistently embrace the steady improvements that Kaizen promotes.
Using Kaizen to help you through the rough patches
So we’ve acknowledged that Kaizen is a great strategy for long-term success. But we’ve also discussed the inevitability of negative progress, at least in the short-term. If this negative progress is inevitable, how can we best handle it to prevent ourselves from losing all of our progress, or giving up from frustration? One strategy I’ve found that works well is the use of short-term crutches. A good example of using short-term crutches can be found in my epic quest to give up sugar, which has long been an addiction of mine.
As much as I hate chemically-sweetened diet sodas, they were very useful in helping me kick sugar out of my diet (as was just mentioned, I’m a sugarholic in every sense of the word). Whenever I had a craving for sugar, I would crack open a diet coke instead (this would happen a few times a week). After a few weeks, the sugar cravings began to die down. With the habitual sugar consumption habit fading, I moved off of diet sodas to stevia-sweetened sodas, black coffee and tea. And this is where I am currently. At the moment, I’m making the move towards more green tea and water, with the occasional unsweetened, black coffee and stevia-sweetened drink.
On one hand, this is a great example of Kaizen as demonstrated through the use of steady, gradual changes, rather than a grandiose removal of every gram of sugar from my diet in one fell swoop (which would have most likely backfired a week later with an epic sugar binge). But here’s what may bother some people: notice how I had to use a somewhat unhealthy crutch in the beginning (the artificially sweetened drinks). Although those artificial sweeteners are far from healthy, it’s important to be realistic about your discipline and will power – I knew deep down that I couldn’t summon the willpower to avoid all sugar-laden drinks and foods for more than a few days without a crutch of some sort. I had been failing at removing sugar from my diet for years at this point, and diet sodas were one of the few things that were able to keep me sugar free long enough for the habit to be broken.
The lesson to take away from this example is that short-term crutches (even slightly unhealthy ones) should be considered in tough times for the sake of building better habits in the long run.
Kaizen is an incredible tool for effective long-term change. It doesn’t quite work as perfectly as it does within a corporate context since we’re emotional beings that are prone to backtracking in our goals during times of high stress. Therefore, the use of short-term crutches and the understanding that it’s perfectly normal to backtrack are key to keeping us in the game long enough for habits to build and become strong enough to pull us forward with minimal effort.
If you’re the type that likes to make massive changes all at once (such as you New Year’s Resolutions junkies), I highly recommend trying a Kaizen approach just once over the course of a few months and see how you like it. You might just be surprised at how effective it is.