Can taking one, small step really change your life? Proponents of kaizen think so. (And for the record, so do I.) Kaizen is a means of making great and lasting change through small, steady increments. Kaizen's practical roots are based in the Japanese management concept for incremental (gradual, continuous) change (improvement): breaking tasks into small, manageable steps.
However, kaizen is also a way of life philosophy based on making little changes on a regular basis; it's about finding new, creative, and effective ways to improve one's life... from tackling the mundane to managing our stress to attaining our life vision.
Case in point: I have 16 oak trees in my front yard. Now, those of you with oak trees know that those mighty sentries insist on holding on to their leaves to the bitter end. In fact, it is not uncommon to see oak trees with clusters of dried, withered leaves still clinging to branches throughout the dead of winter.
Raking my front lawn (I won't even get into talking about raking the back half-acre) was a much-dreaded burden each autumn. I'd find myself waiting, waiting, and waiting for those darned leaves to fall... and then rushing to rake, blow, and haul (too many times to count) tarps filled with leaves into the woods before the early winter snow covered the ground.
One autumn day a few years ago while in full complaint mode about this onerous task, my friend Dennis McCurdy, a motivational speaker and darned inspiring guy, suggested a way to tackle this hassle.
"Why not apply kaizen principles to raking leaves?" he said.
I laughed at the idea at first... But after a few moments, I realized his suggestion was brilliant. So, rather than waiting until mid-November when the majority of leaves were on the ground, and then breaking my back raking, blowing, and hauling for hours at a time, I decided to spend 30 minutes each day tackling the task. Thirty minutes... no more, no less.
The benefits were myriad. No more sore back, no more stuffy nose from moldy leaves, no more stress wondering if I would beat the snow. And I get out of my at-home office each afternoon for 30 minutes, I get 30 minutes of fresh air and sunshine, I get 30 minutes of exercise.
My kaizen yard clean-up success got me thinking: What other areas of my life could I apply the kaizen way? Exercise... Rather than failing to keep to a daily 45-minute exercise routine, I decided to break up my workout into short, five to 10-minute bursts. Now, while this seems to fly in the face of conventional exercise wisdom, there are numerous studies to back up my kaizen exercise plan.
A study published in The Journal of Physiology discussed the work of scientists at Canada's McMaster University, that adds to the growing evidence for the benefits of short-term, high-intensity interval training (HIT), doing a number of short bursts of intense exercise with short recovery breaks in between, as a time-efficient but safe alternative to traditional types of moderate long-term exercise.
Professor Martin Gibala stated, "We have shown that interval training does not have to be 'all out' in order to be effective. Doing 10 one-minute sprints on a standard stationary bike with about one minute of rest in between, three times a week, works as well in improving muscle as many hours of conventional long-term biking less strenuously."
Do you have an onerous task that would benefit from the kaizen approach? Perhaps you want to cut back on your caloric intake, or maybe you want to quit smoking. If you start with the pronouncement, "I'll never eat chocolate again" or "I'll never smoke again," that's a sure-fire way to guarantee failure.
Instead, ask yourself what small, manageable steps can you take towards a healthier, more balanced lifestyle? If you smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, try reducing that by five. You'll still be smoking 35 cigarettes a day, (about 2.5 per waking hour). However, that also translates to just under two packs less per week, and that's darned great! (And you'll have about $20 more in your pocket, too!)
Lao Tzu wrote, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." The journey to better health begins with small, short steps along the kaizen way.
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Rita Schiano is an adjunct professor at Bay Path College, where she teaches philosophy and stress management courses. She is the founder of Live A Flourishing Life™, which melds her three professions: philosophy instructor, stress management instructor and resilience coach, and freelance writer. Her book, "Live a Flourishing Life," is used for the college program and in private training programs.
Rita also conducts stress management and resilience-building workshops funded by the Massachusetts Dept. of Industrial Accidents. She is actively involved with Maine Resilience, a program coordinated with the effort, materials and information offered by the American Psychological Association and the Maine Psychological Association through their Public Education Programs. Rita is an Associate Member of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). Visit her online at her personal website and at Red Room.