How Small Changes Can Lead to Big Results

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.” – Lao Tzu

I’ve got a picture of an elephant hanging in my office. It’s there to remind me of two things:

  1. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
  2. By the mile it’s a trial, by the yard it’s hard, by the inch it’s a cinch.

I love the idea of accomplishing big things. But the work of getting there can quickly become exhausting.

That’s why I loved One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Robert Maurer. It’s a book about the kaizen philosophy: an embrace of ridiculously small steps which can lead to significant change over time.

I’ve known that the “go big or go home” philosophy is dumb and dangerous for awhile now. I’ve read (and re-read) Getting Things Done and understand the importance of breaking projects down into bite-sized chunks and defining next actions.

And yet. There’s still a part of me that wants to ignore the wisdom of all that and take on more than I can handle. I needed this book to rein me back in.

Here what I found most helpful in Maurer’s work:

Change doesn’t have to be as hard as we make it. Using Kaizen, we can practice taking simple, small steps that eventually lead to big results.

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.” – Lao Tzu

We think that taking massive action will create the change we’re looking for, but it usually backfires. Trying to change too much, too soon, is a setup for failure.  “Too often, you meet with success in the short term, only to find yourself falling back into your old ways when your initial burst of enthusiasm fades away. Radical change is like charging up a steep hill – you may run out of wind before you reach the crest, or the thought of all the work ahead makes you give up no sooner than you’ve begun.”

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” Helen Keller

“Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small incremental improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.” John Wooden

“All kaizen asks is that you take small, comfortable steps towards improvement.”

“Low-key change helps the human mind circumnavigate the fear that blocks success and creativity.”

“While the steps may be small, what you’re reaching for is not.”

Our brains are often irrationally afraid. We imagine worst case scenarios and avoid taking risks. We set ourselves up for failure by creating huge goals, which then trigger our fear/stress response, which then shuts down our higher level/logical thinking, which in turn paralyzes us or causes us to run away, which leads to our inevitable failure. The kaizen approach bypasses our lizard brain by assuring us that it’s only a small risk, a small step, and therefore we are relatively safe in pursuing our goals. Kaizen “unsticks you from a creative block, bypasses the fight-or-flight response, and creates new connections between neurons so that the brain enthusiastically takes over the process of change and you progress rapidly towards your goal.”

So too, big questions can overwhelm us and others. A boss asking, “What is each of you going to do to make our company the best in the industry?” shuts employees down. A boss asking, “Can you think of a very small step you might take to improve our process or product?” opens employees up. Kaizen questions are so small and non-threatening that they bypass our defenses and allow us to leverage our subconscious and intuition.

Mind-sculpture (a form of visualization) is another kaizen technique we can use to tackle big things in approachable ways. “It requires practitioners to pretend that they are actually engaged in the action, not just seeing but hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. In mind sculpture, people imagine the movement of their muscles, and the rise and fall of their emotions. in this way, you can approach a difficult task with a purely mental rehearsal, avoiding the unproductive fear that comes with the ‘feet-first’ strategy. You can train your brain by small increments to develop the new set of skills it needs to actually engage in this task.”

Examples of kaizen goals and actions:

Screenshot 2018-02-17 at 9.40.50 AM

“People who struggle with kaizen do so not because the steps are hard but because they are easy. They can’t overcome the cultural training that says change must always be instantaneous, it must always require steely self-discipline, and it must never be pleasurable. We think that if we’re hard on ourselves, exhorting ourselves to do more and to do it faster, we’ll get better results. We say: How can I get to my goal in one minute a day? At this rate, it’ll take years! But kaizen asks us to be patient. It asks us to have faith that with small steps, we can better overcome the mind’s initial resistance to change.

By practicing kaizen, we can help ourselves transition from not wanting to do something to actually desiring it. Kaizen reduces drag and increases motivation. Kaizen makes it easier to do the right things and harder to do the wrong things.

Kaizen works both ways; it’s not just about establishing good habits or achieving positive goals, but also about catching bad ones and noticing problems while they are still small before they have a chance to become big.

Kaizen can become a way of life – appreciating the small gifts that life brings; embracing small ways of loving others.

The essence of kaizen: “an optimistic belief in our potential for continuous improvement.”

So there you have it. Post some of those quotes where you can see them, and  consider picking up a copy of the book. You could read, like, one page a day. 😉

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