Kaizen: Why the Tortoise Beats the Hare and How You Can Too

So, you’ve decided you want to change your life (again) and THIS TIME you are really going to do it!  You follow all the top fitness and diet bloggers, joined the fancy gym where all the sexy people go, read all the latest business and marketing materials and you have your plan of action.  BIG action this time and it’s really going to work.  You’ve totally got this!

Some months later…you’ve lost some weight, you’ve had your best sales to date, etc, but you are totally miserable.  You’re starving, cranky, tired, have no time for fun or even sleep.  You’ve run out of gas and given up…again.

Or, for many of us, you’ve cut and run from your plans the first moment you hit a roadblock and confirmed, yet again, that you can’t do it, you just weren’t meant for greatness, so it’s time to finally accept that and get back to those “safe” Netflix marathons you know and love.

All of us know this pattern well and have cycled through it many times in our lives.  Why is it, that despite our noble reasons for doing so we fail so miserably?  Recently, I read a book that explains it quite well.  “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way” by Robert Maurer, Ph.D.

Kaizen is basically the art of implementing tiny, comfortable steps that add up to not only big, but LASTING change.

As cavemen (and cavewomen), we couldn’t outrun or defend against our predators, so we relied upon being safe and smart, and anything out of the norm was perceived as a dangerous.  That served us well then, but now it keeps us stuck in our unhealthy habits.  Change, even if it’s GOOD change still triggers our amygdala (the fight-or-flight area of our brains) to put a stop to such nonsense.  Our amygdala goes to work blocking our ability to change.  When we want to change our diet, start exercising, have to take a test or give a speech, we need to access our cortex (our thinking/creative brain) to help get us through our challenge rather than shut our cortex down and run from it.

The trick is to “sneak” around the amygdala’s alarm system that gets tripped by changes that are too big.  The more small changes you can tiptoe past the sleeping amygdala, the more you are building new neural pathways and before you know it, new habits are formed.  Like the frog in the slowly warming pot on the stove, the amygdala doesn’t even see it coming.  “SURPRISE, Amygdala!”  Luckily for you, however, the outcome is better than that of the poor frog’s.

Large Goal = Fear = Access to Cortex Restricted = Failure

Small Goal = Fear Bypassed = Cortex Engaged = Success

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”       —Mark Twain

If you expect fear, you can plan accordingly, like breaking goals into smaller pieces and have compassion for yourself rather than contempt when fear overtakes you.  Now that you know your brain is designed to create fear when you grow, you can stop beating yourself up for letting fear stop you in the past.  Also keep in mind that the more we care about something, the more fear shows up so that’s all the more reason to take the proper steps to create the changes you really want.

In his book, Maurer lays out the plan like this:

  1. Ask Small Questions
  2. Take Small Actions
  3. Solve Small Problems

When we Ask Small Questions  we are engaging the cortex (the thinking/problem-solving part of the brain) in a way that it can’t resist.  It loves to be asked questions and solve problems.  But, if the questions are too big, like “What do I need to do to lose 50 pounds before my reunion next summer?” or “How will I get that big promotion before somebody else does?”, we will wake the amygdala it will block access to the cortex and put an end to the question and answer session.

If you ask yourself small, innocent questions like, “How can I add 5 minutes of exercise into my day?”, or “What can I do in 5 minutes per day to manage my stress?”, these questions excite the cortex and it goes to work, solving the problem in its own time and comes up with an answer or two.

Don’t fall in to the trap of allowing negative questions such as, “Why am I so fat?” or “Why can’t I find a mate?”.  These questions will debilitate you.  Try turning them into small, non-threatening questions like “What is one healthy thing I can do for my body today?” or “What is one small, appealing trait about me?”

In his book, Maurer suggests you practice Asking Small Questions like these:

  • If I were guaranteed not to fail what would I be doing differently?
  • If you’re trying to reach a specific goal, ask yourself every day: What is one small step I can take toward reaching my goal?
  • What is one small step I can take to improve my health (or relationships, or career, or any other area)?  This question is designed to remain open, to give the brain plenty of room for play. Be prepared for surprising answers!
  • What’s one good thing about this person? You might find yourself seeing the person’s strengths with the same clarity and in the same detail as you do their weaknesses.
  • What is one small thing that is special about me (or my spouse, or my organization)?

By Taking Small Actions (trivially, even laughably small), you’ll create an appetite for success and will create an upward spiral to your goals, even lofty ones….painlessly.

  • Stop overspending = Remove one object from the shopping cart before paying.
  • Begin an exercise program = Just stand on the treadmill for a few minutes a day for the first week.
  • Manage stress = Take one deep breath when you feel tension.
  • Learn a foreign language = Commit one new word to memory every day.  Or practicing saying one new word a week.
  • Get more sleep = Go to bed one minute earlier each night until you add the amount you want.

Ridiculously small actions like these get the brain saying:  “Hey, this change is a piece of cake. No need wake the amygdala. No risk of failure here”. You may be rolling your eyes by now thinking you’ll never accomplish a large goal at this pace, but by side-stepping your brain’s fear response, the way is made clear for establishing new, lasting habits and progress is made quicker than you would imagine.

You’ll notice that this slow, gradual progression toward your goal is much different than the typical, charge-ahead-and-lose-steam-and-it’s-back-to-square-one pattern of change that most of us are guilty of doing.  When you get tempted to make larger changes for quicker progress, remember that you could be derailed if you wake the sleeping amygdala.   It is crucial that you keep the steps so small that they barely register on the “effort” scale.  Remind yourself:  “Slow change is better than no change, which is all I’ve managed to create in the past.”

Another great thing to keep you on track toward your goal is to Solve Small Problems.  Many of us let little concerns go and don’t give them any energy until they are big problems.  This is most obvious in new relationships.  We all know somebody (maybe even ourselves) who has looked the other way when presented early on with minor red flags and then is stunned and dismayed by how their partner “has changed”.  So, to keep from creating more challenges to derail you from progress, don’t ignore that funny sound your car is making, that twinge of pain in your knee, or put off the “small projects” that can become a discouraging, energy-zapper later.

All we can do is our best and that looks different for everybody.  Even if you are just now facing the direction of progress but haven’t made any, THAT’S progress.  Be proud that you aren’t facing the other direction or simply burying your head in the sand.  It’s never too late for change in the right direction, and no step is too small, as evidenced by the shock of the Hare when the Tortoise beat him fair and square.


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