As I pass the half-year mark with my experiment, it seems like a good time to take stock of where I’m at and what I’ve accomplished since January, and evaluate whether I need to make any adjustments. If you’re just joining, you can read my original post on the set-up and design of my experiment here, but basically, I’m devoting myself to developing habits and making improvements that are said to lead to excellence in three different areas of my life, to see what happens. My hypothesis is that the pursuit of excellence, driven by the process of continual gradual improvements, should produce a positive transformation and eventually, extraordinary results in each of those areas.
My focus here has been on establishing the daily habits of writing for an hour and reading something in the field of personal development for an hour. Still not as consistent as I would like to be, but I usually manage 4-5 days a week for each.
- So far, this has produced 24 blog posts (plus 2 guest blogs), and I’ve read 13 books. I also joined a few blogging groups, so I’ve made some new connections and gotten some valuable feedback on my writing. As an added bonus, the number of people reading my blog has increased 5- to 10-fold (depending on the topic) compared with when I first started in December – yay!
Image and Self-Care (Exercise, Healthy Eating, and Overall Image)
My focus in this area has been on incorporating some healthier micro-habits, gradually upping my exercise intensity, and revamping my wardrobe.
- I now get 4-5 glasses of water and at least one fruit serving in per day, even when traveling, compared with very rarely doing either when I started.
- I’ve upped the distance I run from 2.5 miles to 3.25 miles, with no change in speed or frequency. I’ve gone from 3 regular push-ups and 30 tricep dips in January to doing 18 push-ups and 47 tricep dips daily (and my arms and shoulders are definitely starting to show it!). Not much progress with the abs though – from 1 minute a day to 2 minutes – I’ve been hitting a mental block whenever I try to up it to 3 minutes.
- The wardrobe is coming along – I finally broke down and hired a professional wardrobe consultant who helped me purge my closets and get rid of everything that didn’t fit with the image I’m creating. That was a huge step. I’ve also revamped my exercise wardrobe, and added a few new things, but I haven’t been very consistent with developing my shopping habit – still working on this one. But, I did finally find a new hairstyle I’m happy with for now.
- The first habit I worked on developing was doing things outside of my comfort zone and facing fears, and this has led to some fun adventures, like a high-ropes obstacle course and a solo trip to check out Los Angeles (not to mention fostering an injured squirrel for a few days!). I’ve also done lots of smaller things, like going to new places or networking events alone, just to shake up my routine and to get used to being uncomfortable. It’s had a noticeable effect – I can tell my confidence levels have increased. However, things have been slow for the past few months, mainly because time and opportunities have been limited. Time to step things up by confronting one of my biggest fears, the fear of rejection! Stay tuned for more on this one…
- The second habit I added was meditation, and this has become an integral part of my daily routine (according to the Calm app that I use, I just reached 140 sessions!). I do at least ten minutes a day now, and I find it’s really helped me to maintain my concentration longer when I’m working on mentally-demanding projects. I also turn to meditation whenever I start feeling overwhelmed, or when I’ve been in a negative environment, to regain my equilibrium, and it really helps with this too.
- My third “improvement” in this category has been to volunteer with a local animal rescue. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I could never find the “spare” time. I absolutely love animals, and this was something I’ve wanted to do for years. So, I finally realized there would never be a “perfect” time, and decided to make “now” work. Sometimes you just have to say yes to what you want, and figure out how to make it happen (hmmm, that sounds like a good topic for a future blog post…). And I love it – I have a cat, but I love dogs, so this gives me the opportunity to play with them until my heart is content, without any long-term commitment. Definitely a win.
Strategy: Microresolutions Versus Kaizen
One of the things I’ve really struggled with over the past few months is frustration with my progress. I’m six months into this experiment (seven by the time you read this post), and I’m not sure my life has changed very much. There have been some positive shifts, but nothing dramatic. Now, I’ll be the first to admit patience is not one of my virtues, and one thing I’m learning as I study the lives of high-achievers is that they usually had long incubation periods between when they started and when they reached a recognizable “zone of excellence” and the rewards that went with it, but still, I’d like to see more than what I’m seeing.
As I thought about it more, I realized this might have something to do with the approach I’ve taken so far, which has been to focus on establishing new habits through the use of microresolutions. While this strategy has value in creating change, and may provide a solid foundation to build on, it may not be the best approach for pursuing excellence long-term.
And here’s why: new habits can take months to become firmly established (up to 271 days in one study), and it’s difficult to work on more than 1-2 new habits at a time. At least for me, the biggest life-change “hit” from a new habit comes in the beginning, and then it seems to plateau as I work on making the new habit stick. While I know the benefits of any one habit will continue accumulate over time (like with my reading habit, obviously I’ll continue to accumulate knowledge over months and years), there’s a long lag time before the first habit is firmly established and I can move on to another one.
One of the central tenets of excellence is that it results from a process of continual improvement. Microresolutions may not provide continuous enough progress. And I realized that a “kaizen” approach, which by its very definition is a process of continual small improvements and adjustments, may be much better suited for this experiment. You can read more about using kaizen specifically for creating new habits here, but kaizen has even more applications.
Kaizen was first developed in the US during World War II by a statistician named Dr. W. Edwards Deming as a strategy to increase production of military supplies in existing factories, by making continual small improvements in quality and quantity, because there wasn’t time for large-scale innovations like building new manufacturing plants. It worked, and a large part of the Allied victory can be attributed to the massive output of supplies by US manufacturers. We later exported this concept to Japan, who made it their own, gave it a name, and went on to dominate the automotive and electronics industry in the 1970’s and 80’s.
The basic concept of kaizen is simple – continually making small, incremental changes to improve productivity or efficiency or quality or whatever the goal might be. Sounds an awful lot like the process athletes and musicians and performers and high-achievers in any field use to hone their skills and reach the top, right? Without calling it “kaizen”, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden captured this concept beautifully in this quote:
“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”
So, for the second half of my year-long experiment, I’ve decided to adopt more of a kaizen approach to my pursuit of excellence. Every Sunday, I’m asking myself the following question:
What is one small thing I can do better this week than last week in the area of (business/career, fitness, wardrobe/image, expanding my comfort zone, home/environment, etc…)?
This question creates a short list of achievable goals that become my focus for the week. In some cases, they are micro-habits that will become part of my routine going forward, and in other cases they may be adjustments to my schedule or small one-off projects. Each week becomes the baseline for the next, so gains are carried forward, and become building blocks for future advances.
I’ve been testing out this approach in July, and so far I’m impressed. What I like about it is that progress is more tangible – I’ve seen a big uptick in productivity and time efficiency, which was the area I focused on first – and continuous. That makes it easier to stay motivated. Plus, I don’t get bored, because every week there’s a new set of mini-goals to work on, which creates a feeling of forward movement. This approach is more flexible, too – if I notice something that needs to be improved, I don’t have to wait months to tackle it with a new habit, I can take care of it the following week.
Finally, another great thing about a kaizen approach is that while the mini-goals and improvements are designed to be so small that it’s almost impossible not to get them done, there’s no rule against doing more. The ‘magic’ of kaizen is setting mini-goals that move you forward without triggering the brain’s aversion to change. Then, accomplishing the mini-goal sets off a cascade of feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters that make the brain want more, creating new neural pathways of success. And approaching change with a mindset of “I can do more if I want to,” rather than “I have to do more,” is empowering. Completing one thing creates momentum, and inspires me to want to do more.
So, that’s it for now. We’ll see what happens over the next few months, but I think this has been an important strategic shift. And that’s what experiments are all about – finding out what works, and what doesn’t…