Kaizen is a Japanese word that translates to “continuous improvement.” It is a methodology, first used by Japanese businesses after World War II to improve their programs and processes. The Kaizen Method has now become a philosophy that many people apply to their daily lives, especially as a way to build healthy habits.
What Is Kaizen?
Masaaki Imai, a Japanese organizational theorist, developed and popularized the Kaizen method in his book Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success (1986). The essence of Kaizen is to make small, continuous positive changes, dedicating a small amount of your time every day to a goal or habit you have in mind. Over time, this will lead to major improvements. Improving productivity in this way is a gradual and methodical process.
How Kaizen Benefits Habit Formation
The Kaizen Method offers a more realistic, manageable, and less burdensome way to build habits. Often when we want to build habits, we become overly ambitious and try to completely give up negative habits, or we promise we’ll dedicate lots of time to a new habit (e.g. meditating or exercising for an hour every day). Our ambitious approach to habit formation sets us up for failure. When we fail to commit to the original plan, we can give up on the habit change altogether.
The philosophy of Kaizen, however, is much more understanding of how difficult it can be to change habits. It doesn’t prescribe any major, overnight changes. Instead, it focuses on small, achievable goals, like getting one percent better at something each day. This is achievable for anyone. It could mean improving one’s technique in yoga, writing, or art.
The “one-minute principle” is also central to the Kaizen philosophy. This involves spending one minute every day, at the same time every day, on the habit you want to build. Eventually, this routine will make doing the habit second nature, like brushing your teeth.
Of course, you don’t have to be committed to spending only one minute on your chosen activity. The point is to do it for at least a minute at a given time, as this is in no way daunting. Then, once you get into that routine, you can gradually spend longer on that habit each day so that eventually you can find yourself spending half an hour on an activity without any resistance.
Applying Kaizen to Specific Habits
So how do you apply Kaizen to actual habits? Here are some examples of how you might apply the one-percent improvement principle in the context of specific habits:
If you want to meditate every day, choose a time where you find meditation easiest. For many people, this is the morning, but others prefer to meditate at the end of the day. Choose a specific time to meditate and always meditate then (setting a daily alarm will help in this respect). To improve one percent each day on a meditation habit, you can increase your time spent meditating by one minute. (You can use an app like Insight Timer or simply an alarm to time yourself.)
For other habits, increased time spent on the activity is not the only way to gain a one percent improvement. If you were lifting weights, for example, you could add just a minimal amount of weight each day to the dumbbell or barbell. This would be much more achievable and safer than trying to add a lot of extra weight in one go. And with an activity like reading books, a one percent improvement each day could involve reading an article or book with slight differences in difficulty. Eventually, you could find yourself able to read highly technical articles and books.
In this day and age, there is an obsession with making big changes in one fell swoop. This may be considered the quickest way to reject negative habits and gain positive ones, but it is often not realistic and dooms many people to fail. Building habits using the Kaizen method, however, is much more realistic and manageable, making you more likely to stick to the method. If you are unsure of which habits would be worthwhile to build, check out our summary of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
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