Humans rely on automatic behaviors or habits to make our daily lives more doable. Imagine if you had no habits and every part of your day involved countless tiny decisions —it would be exhausting! Habits let us save our energy and decision-making skills for more demanding moments.
But what if you don’t you don’t love all of your habits? Or many of the habits you have don’t serve you that well. Maybe you’re ready for a change? I have a strategy that works for me and my coaching clients: Kaizen or 1% improvement.
“Kaizen” is a Japanese term that refers to small, continuous improvement. Though this term has its roots in industrialization, it is a principle that we apply to personal productivity and lifestyle change.
Kaizen is about making 1% improvements every day. So, let’s say you’re someone who stays up until past midnight every night. You want to go to bed earlier. Instead of forcing yourself to go to bed at 10pm tonight, you go to bed five minutes earlier. Five minutes is your 1%. If you go to bed five minutes earlier everyday, it will take you at least 24 days to be in bed by 10pm. This is kaizen.
At first, it feels like there is no improvement. (You might think: 11:55pm is barely earlier than midnight!) It takes some time for each day of 1% change to accumulate. Once these small improvements do build up though, you’ll begin to see and feel the effects of your gradual shift.
We believe in making small, continuous improvement because humans are creatures of habits. Our nervous systems tend to freak out when they are shocked by too much change. Imagine touching something hot, you immediately pull your hand away without even thinking. Our nervous system does the same thing when we throw too much at it at once—it reacts by contracting, pulling in. And a contracted nervous system cannot learn or grow; it is too busy trying to protect itself. With gradual change and continuous improvements, our nervous systems slowly adjust to new ways of being allowing for new habits to stick.
We can use kaizen in two main ways. We can use it in the moment to make a 1% improvement on the spot, and we can use it as we plan ahead to change our habits.
1) Kaizen in the moment might look something like this.
Your Craving Brain: I feel like an iced coffee.
Your Inner Conscience: I told myself no more coffee!
The Kaizen Response: Today, I will get iced coffee, but I will get it without any sweetener.
The next day, when you crave iced coffee, you get it without sweetener OR cream. In this way, each time you experience that craving, you can make a choice that is 1% better than your last decision.
2) You can also use kaizen as you plan ahead of time to change your habits. As you map out your habit change for the week, you set your 1% improvement goals. Again with the example of getting to bed earlier, you can improve each day by going to bed 5 minutes earlier than the night before.
Keep in mind that this incremental change should sound underwhelming to you. If you’re working toward a goal that you really, really want to see come to fruition (you’re anxious for change, you’re excited for results, et cetera) then the 1% change is going to sound too easy. Lame. Go-nowhere.
But before you ditch kaizen altogether, remember all the times when you’ve tried to overhaul your life at a moment’s notice—has it ever worked? Have those changes been lasting? Did you quit eating sweets for two days and then go back to your old habits? Did you just decide that you were going to go to the gym every single day and then you just did it, day after day, no problem? No! Not likely! (I mean, if any of that worked for you, congratulations! You are a fantastic, magical creature!) Most of us cannot make lasting change on a dime. That’s why the 1% improvement should feel underwhelming. Because making your habits change for good is a huge undertaking, you want to do it little by little, inch by inch.
Cate Stillman writes this in her book Body Thrive: “The problem with kaizen, for most of us, is that it seems too easy. When you get inspired to change or upgrade a habit, you want big returns. You bite off more than you can chew, which guarantees you’ll fail. The kaizen approach makes the bite small enough that you hardly notice as it nudges you in the direction you want to go.”
Plus, a huge bonus of setting a 1% improvement goals is that you get to celebrate success, like, all the time! When you meet your goal, you get to say “There! I did it!” You’ll feel powerful (because you are), and encouraged to meet the next improvement goal. We are all WAY more likely to succeed when we are rewarded (a feeling that comes with celebration) than when we experience the guilt and shame that so often come with the feeling of missing your goals.
One caution: KAIZEN WILL WORK, SO YOU NEED TO IDENTIFY WHAT IT IS YOU TRULY DESIRE. You WILL reach your goals with small, continuous improvements. So, let your desire be there, and let kaizen be your friend.