The art of kaizen: self-development one step at a time

The art of kaizen
Image: @laurentcastellani

As the old proverb goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. And there is no better way to summarise the Japanese philosophy of kaizen. Today its principles are widely used in manufacturing and business processes but in ancient Oriental cultures they were originally intended as a method of self-development. Its literal meaning is a journey of constant improvement in all spheres of life.

To some this might sound like a utopian idea. But the philosophy of kaizen is much closer to home than it might seem. Anyone who has tried tracking their habits, running a checklist or participated in long-term challenges, will have already touched upon it.

The philosophy of kaizen sees changes as a constant process rather than a sporadic burst of accomplished tasks from your to-do list. It is certainly no magic pill to solving your life’s problems. If anything, Oriental philosophy is the opposite of bold promises, global shifts and epic goals. It is a practice that is very much focussed on the process rather than the outcome. We will dive into some of the secrets behind this successful approach and look at the ways you can integrate it into your life.

Simple questions and important decisions

Kaizen begins with questions that will help you reassess your life. Do you have any bad habits? What is your relationship to your own body? Are you happy with the way your career is progressing? At this stage you might find it useful to try a writing practice known as The Wheel of Life.

Draw a circle and divide it into 6-8 equal parts, each of which will stand for an important aspect of your life, such as your career and health. Rate how happy you are with each one on a scale of 1 to 10. This will help you evaluate your life at this stage in a more or less objective way and get ready to dive deeper. Self-reflection is a process than you might end up marinating in for more than a day, but it is an important step that cannot be missed. It is impossible to define your path for future development, without an honest assessment of your current behaviour, habits and psychological stumbling blocks.

When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens — and when it happens, it lasts.
From Robert Maurer’s One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way

Jumping slightly ahead, it is worth noting that you should not stop asking yourself these questions even after you have mapped out your key priorities and defined areas for improvement. Psychologists believe that the question-answer kind of self-talk is more motivating than commanding yourself to do things a certain way. Rather than forbidding yourself to eat sweets, why not ask instead: “Can I swap my sweet eclair for a piece of dark chocolate today?”

The philosophy of kaizen
Image: @laurentcastellani

Small steps

The all-familiar method of breaking down one big goal into smaller achievable tasks is the foundation of kaizen. It is important that these tasks are truly small enough to not require huge amounts of effort and self-discipline. An hour of reading before bed is quite ambitious for someone used to spending their evenings watching a series or scrolling through social media. It is best to start with one page a day.

Rather than focusing on the big goal at hand such as learning a new language or running a marathon, concentrate on executing small daily steps in that direction. For instance, make a promise to yourself that you will learn three new words a day and, say, do 10 squats. What other beneficial things can you do to help your self-development that would take only a few minutes a day?

The most important thing about kaizen is to not rush the results.

At this stage, you might find it useful to use a bullet journal, a checklist or an online habits tracker, where you can tick off your daily accomplished tasks. It is so easy to feel depleted when striving for that ideal goal, which is why it is so important to show extra compassion towards yourself in these early days.

Gradually and consistently implement new micro habits into your life. This is the only way to approach big tasks which can otherwise be rather daunting. Do not be tempted to increase your workload too soon. If you are starting with two push ups a day, do not jump straight into a 20-minute routine after only a couple of days. Taking on a dozen new habits in a week is also excessive. Let the changes happen slowly. The most important thing about kaizen is to not rush the results.

The most important thing about kaizen is to not rush the results.
Image: @laurentcastellani

Great rewards

1/ Tracking your progress

Due to our tendency to think of the bigger picture, you might feel silly about sticking to your micro activities to start with. You might even convince yourself that they are pointless. Tracking your progress will help you maintain that motivation. This is where checklists come in, where every tick equates to that much needed dopamine hit. A support group is also an important motivator which can boost your serotonin levels. Tell your friends about that new habit you have chosen to stick with, find like-minded people on social media to hold you accountable and be in it together.

2/ Reward yourself

Another way to stay motivated is to reward yourself. When done right, you can strike a balance and take pleasure in the small things. This can take the form of a leisurely breakfast in your favourite restaurant or a visit to your favourite exhibition. Rewarding yourself for a personal finance course by purchasing a designer handbag is clearly overdoing it. The whole point of these kinds of rewards is to focus on the results of your daily commitments and mark the completion of a certain milestone. This is why it pays off to focus on rewards in the form of new experiences and impressions rather than an accumulation of material goods.

3/ Remember what matters

Do not neglect this tool and remember that, after all, the best reward is the development of new competencies and the shedding of bad habits. The ultimate result is an exponentially better quality of life. And the best thing about kaizen is that it never ends. Having set off on this route, you will discover that every next step leads you to more improvement and helps you form new goals.

Irrespective of how many changes you have already accomplished, there will always be the next thing you can work on. There is always room for growth. Changes are nothing other than opportunities, and constant growth is a source of pleasure in itself. Remember, every big journey starts with small steps, what matters is sticking with it.

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