In her new book, Kaizen: The Japanese Method for Transforming Habits, One Small Step at a Time, publishing consultant Sarah Harvey explores the philosophy that promises to have you living your best life. Let’s go!
The emphasis in Kaizen is always on doing things in small stages and treating the idea of change as an ongoing process rather than a quick-fix ‘to-do list’. Life is messy and Kaizen certainly won’t make all of your problems disappear overnight, but it will encourage you to alter your mindset, so that you get less bogged down by the pressures of work/study and personal life.
The method will show you how to interrogate your existing habits, think about long-term goals, and then formulate a plan to start gradually making small improvements towards those goals. In the process, you will overhaul your mindset and attitude towards change. The most important thing to ensure you stay motivated is that the small changes shouldn’t feel too scary or impact upon your existing routine too much.
Because each person will have different priorities and things they wish to transform, the method isn’t prescriptive or one-size-fits-all. Various Kaizen practitioners work in different ways and no person’s plan is going to look the same. But there are certain questions we can all start with to stimulate your thinking and provoke thoughtful responses.
Let’s start by taking an inventory of your life as it is at this very moment. The idea is to make an honest assessment of your behaviours, habits and immediate environment to eventually form a ‘life plan’ of goals and challenges. This probably sounds like a daunting task to start with, so let’s adopt a Kaizen attitude and break it down into very small steps. Take out a piece of paper and divide it into sections. This can either be in columns or a spider diagram, whichever is more aesthetically pleasing to you. Nobody has to see this inventory so do whatever feels right for you.
If it feels too daunting to try to tackle every part of your life at once, just choose one or two things to concentrate on at a time. Each person will have different priorities and this inventory can be populated with anything you like, but here are some ideas to get you started: What is your relationship with and attitude towards your body, your mental health, your diet, your exercise routine (or lack of), your sleep patterns, smoking and alcohol? Do you feel fulfilled in your working life? How do you feel about your immediate environment and the people in it? Are you happy, or are there things you would like to change? What new challenges could you set yourself?
Things You Want To Change
Leave the new challenges for a minute and focus on your existing habits. For those things that you may wish to change, now is the time to look at each section of your inventory and really interrogate yourself. Take out a new piece of paper, and for each area be brutally honest and question whether you are happy and doing the most to achieve what you want. And for those areas you want to change, think about what could be done to improve your situation. Here are some questions to help you: How am I successful in this area? How could I do better or how am I ineffectual? What would it look like if I had a much-improved situation?
Take your time over these questions, as the answers to them might not be immediately obvious. Perhaps take a different area each day and put together your answers over the course of a week. Your subconscious brain loves working on questions in the background and you might suddenly find that an answer comes to you when you’re in the shower or queuing for a sandwich at lunchtime. Before getting started, it can also be illuminating to spend some time tracking your existing habits to see where you
might be able to improve, e.g. keeping a food/alcohol/ exercise diary over a week or interrogating where your time is being spent at work.
From the answers that you have given to the questions above, you will find that you have a goal – or several goals – and a list of actions. They should be very small actions that you can take in the short term to work towards more long-term happiness and success. If you have a set idea of what goal it is that you want to work towards, try writing it down and keeping it somewhere where you can see it regularly, such as in your purse, on your computer screen or on a sticky note attached to your mirror.
New Challenges and Hobbies
For any new challenges that you wish to take on, the first step is to do a brainstorm of what these could be. Is there a hobby you used to do at school that fell by the wayside when life got in the way? Is there a country you have always dreamed of visiting that you want to save up to go to? And would you like to know some of the language before you go? Or is there a physical or mental challenge you have always fancied trying?
There are probably a few things that spring to mind straight away, but if you are struggling to think of anything then canvas friends and the internet for inspiration. Check out local Facebook groups to see if there is an activity that you can try close to home, or if you want to try something a bit more unusual then consult the many websites and online forums that provide advice on nearly every activity you can think of. There are also plenty of tips in Chapter Seven of this book too. Once you have decided what this challenge could be, again ask yourself some small questions about how you can get started, such as: What will the challenge involve? Why do I want to do it? What is a very small thing I can do to get started?
Once you have mapped out the various areas of your life on which you wish to concentrate, it is time to prioritise. Ask yourself whether there any ‘quick wins’ that can be sorted out fairly easily, and, rather than overwhelm yourself at the start, perhaps choose just one area to focus on (although it is worth looking at all of your answers as a whole to see if there are any overlaps or things that could be worked on in unison, e.g. ‘I want to move about more’ and ‘I want to learn Beyonce’s dance routine to “Single Ladies”’ could be combined as one goal). Once you have chosen your first area of focus, now is the time to write down the smallest thing you can do to work towards that goal. Remember the one per cent rule! It should be something that will barely impact your routine and be a tiny incremental step towards your goal.
Once you have the first goal that you wish to achieve, think about a reasonable time frame in which you would like to complete it. This will obviously vary depending on what you are trying to achieve – aiming to learn a musical instrument is going to take a lot longer than reading Ulysses (in theory, at least!). It might also be that your goal doesn’t have a finite ending, especially if it is a new hobby that you wish to take up. The key is to make sure that you have a measurable time frame so that you can track your progress, e.g. ‘I want to take up yoga, so I am going to go to one class every fortnight’.
Once you are working towards one thing that you want to achieve you might find that it is occupying all of your energy and making you feel exhausted. If that is the case, then perhaps take a step back and make the step you are working towards even smaller. For example, if you are failing to write 200 words of your novel each day, then reduce it to just 100. This might not seem like very much at all, but finishing the week having written 700 words is better than sitting and using up your energy frustrated and staring at a screen all week while losing all motivation entirely.
You should find, however, that once you have started to incorporate one small new step into your routine – and things start to improve or develop – then you will have more energy to tackle other things too. The idea is to slightly adjust your mental approach so that these small steps start to feel natural. You can now either ramp up the step you are already working on or bring in an entirely new step.
Holding Yourself Accountable
Now that you have an idea of what you want to achieve and the first small measurable step you can do towards it, it is time to find a way to make yourself accountable. Different people will respond to different ways, but some ideas are: Use a bullet journal. Bullet journals may sound complicated but they are really easy to put together and a great way to track your progress. There is a full guide to how to produce one on page 000, along with hundreds of online tutorials and several books. Following #bulletjournal on social media will also provide much inspiration for how to create one.
A good old-fashioned wall chart. Did you used to have a chart at home where your parents rewarded you for good behaviour or eating your greens? Or did your teacher use one to rewards pupils who had been helpful in class? Try making one for yourself and displaying it in pride of place at home. Buy colourful paper and special stickers to make it look even fancier.
Tell a friend. Informing somebody else of your goal and letting them help hold you to account is a good way of spurring you on to keep going. I asked my friend to message me every few days to check on my word count while I was writing this book and it really motivated me (and I only lied about my progress a few times!).Online trackers and apps. Technology can sometimes be a very good thing, especially when it comes to analysing your habits or tracking your goals. Explore the many different options out there for apps that can offer encouragement and help you to keep track of your progress.
As well as tracking your achievements, a good way to motivate yourself is to reward yourself when you make progress. Reaching some of your goals will feel rewarding enough – especially if you are getting a boost in mood from better sleep or doing more exercise – but some habits may feel harder to change. And your rewards don’t have to be anything expensive. It can just be small things such as a new notebook, some socks that don’t have holes in them or a new plant for your bedroom.
Having rewards after completing milestones can really spur you on and then encourage you to try to conquer even more challenges. Another idea of a way to treat yourself could be with fun cultural or social activities. For example, after finally running 5K without stopping, why don’t you arrange a celebratory karaoke night or night out with your friends? Involving others in your rewards will mean that your friends can both motivate you and hold you to account if you don’t stick to your goals.
Forget Hygge or Ikigai, the new philosophy you need to know about is Kaizen. The Japanese method – translating as ‘change’ – promises to improve all areas of your life, mainly breaking lifelong bad habits (anyone else not got any nails left at this point?). Through a series of personalized small steps, you’ll be able to kickstart your Kaizen practise and start building good habits.