Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Book Review: One Small Step can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

The idea is big, but Robert Maurer’s book is quite small. “Kaizen” is Japanese for “improvement,” and it’s the philosophy that taking small steps is the best way to make continual improvement.

Or as I once told a client, “Baby steps only go forwards.”

Think of the last time you set out to make a major change. What did you feel? Exhilaration? Exhaustion? Excitement? Trepidation? Most people, when faced with change, will feel at least some element of fear. And very often that fear can get in the way of actually making the change. The idea of kaizen is to take make such small changes that your brain doesn’t even know you’re changing, and therefore, doesn’t get in the way.

It’s kind of genius.

There are six strategies in Maurer’s book:

1. Asking small questions

2. Thinking small thoughts

3. Taking small actions

4. Solving small problems

5. Giving small rewards

6. Recognizing small moments

Let’s take a quick look at each of these.

1. Asking small questions

Your brain loves questions. Just look at how many people are drawn to crosswords and Sudoku and jigsaw puzzles. But instead of overwhelming yourself with big questions (“How can I lose 25 pounds?” “How will I ever get a job in this economy?”) focus on the small questions instead (“If health were my first priority, what would I do differently today?” “What little step could I take today towards my ideal job?”).

Watch out, though, for negative questions. We get more of what we focus on, so if you’re tempted to ask yourself “Why does this always happen to me?” or “What’s wrong with me?” your brain will be delighted to work on those questions, too. In a judgmental, awful, negative way.

2. Thinking small thoughts

This is all about visualization, or what Maurer calls “mind sculpture.” Mentally practice a task using all five of your senses, and you are much more likely to develop the skills it takes to actually engage in that task in the real world. But this isn’t about 30 minutes of meditation on a task. It’s about how many seconds a day you’re willing to devote to the effort. The idea is to make it simple, habitual, and fun. And nobody can say they don’t have an extra 45 seconds a day, right?

3. Taking small actions

If you want to clean your house, you can go into the most awful room and start trying to rid it of its clutter, but for some of us, that’s just too big an idea. And so we avoid it. Instead, if you clean your house the kaizen way, it becomes about going into that room and cleaning up for five minutes. Or removing five pieces of clutter every day. Big, bold actions often get us initial results, but don’t take into account things like lack of time, exhaustion, fear, or resistance. The smaller steps get us to the goal because they can be so easily incorporated into daily life.

Here are some suggestions for small actions you can take:

If you want to stop overspending, remove one item from your cart before checking out.

If you want to start exercising, go – just go – to the gym three times a week.

If you want to get more sleep, go to sleep one minute earlier or sleep one minute later each day.

They may not seem like much, but for anyone who is really resistant to change, these are cracks of light in an otherwise dark room.

4. Solving small problems

The key to solving small problems is catching them when they’re still small. And if you miss that window, the trick is to solve small problems in the face of really large problems. Some of this step involves trusting your gut and listening to what your instincts tell you about things – so you can prevent small problems from becoming bigger ones. Maurer has a great exercise for helping to spot the warning signs.

5. Give small rewards

Small rewards serve us best as recognition of a job well done. They can be little treats and pleasures, or simply a verbal acknowledgement of taking the small action you set out to take. A few key things to remember:

The reward should be appropriate to the goal – that is, don’t reward yourself with chocolate if your goal is to lose weight

The reward should be appropriate to the person – I, for example, would not particularly enjoy the reward of watching a football game and drinking a beer as a reward for a day of hard work, but I know plenty of people who would.

The reward should be free or inexpensive – if not, rewarding yourself for all your small steps could become a financial burden, which would subvert the whole kaizen

6. Recognizing small moments

This is all about paying attention to what’s going on around you and what opportunities for change naturally arise. A couple of the examples Maurer shares are:

A flight attendant noticed that passengers weren’t eating the olives in their five-item
salads. A the time, five-item salads cost far more than four-item salads. When the fifth item (olives) was dropped from the salad, the company saved half a million dollars a year.

George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, noticed that when he took his dog out for a walk, the dog came back covered in burrs. His attention to this small moment led to the invention of Velcro.

Having this curiosity and awareness about life allowed the opportunities for innovation and enhancement to present themselves. Combining these six steps yields a very powerful philosophy, especially for anyone who has ever been afraid, stressed, or overwhelmed by change.

And because the book is so little (and only took me a day to read), it’s the perfect first small step!

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