For my 2019 experiment with the pursuit of excellence, I decided to put the principle of kaizen (continuous incremental improvement) to the test. Businesses and factories have successfully been using kaizen for nearly a century, with well documented results. But the concept of continuous small improvements can be applied to personal pursuits as well – just look at the way athletes and musicians train to become the best in their fields. Their gains come through years of daily practice, progressively improving their skills one tiny step at a time.
So the question I’m investigating this year is: what happens when you take a systematic kaizen-based approach to improvement in multiple areas of your life? Can this strategy create as dramatic a transformation on an individual level as it does in a business?
To test this hypothesis, I started out with a plan to take one specific small step, or implement/expand one small habit, every week to move me closer to my own personal definition of excellence in 7 sectors of my life: career (expertise, marketing), fitness, image, health, relationships, and environment.
Perhaps the first thing that I discovered was that trying to make changes in 7 different areas, every week, even if they were small changes, quickly became a logistical nightmare. After the first couple of weeks, it was like trying to juggle 15 or 20 balls at one time, since some of the actions were habit changes that needed to be continued from week to week. I dropped quite a few balls simply because I couldn’t remember everything I was supposed to be working on that week, even with reminders posted everywhere.
Despite that little glitch, I did accomplish quite a few improvements between January and March:
- I started working with a personal trainer at the gym. After hitting a very resistant fitness plateau, I decided to call in a professional. He definitely pushes me out of my comfort zone, which is a good thing.
- I bought a new Fitbit tracker so I could monitor my activity, and I’ve gone from many days in the 4000-5000 step range, to averaging over 10,000 every day. Now, even on “lazy” days, I get in at least 8000 steps.
- I went from drinking 1-2 glasses of water a day to drinking 5-7, and in the process cut out one venti-sized coffee. I also eliminated dairy from my diet, which has made a surprisingly positive difference in how I feel.
- I’m working on getting more sleep, and I’ve gradually moved up my bedtime by 20 minutes (in 5 minute increments). Still working on this to move it back another 30 minutes.
- In addition to working on my nighttime routine, I’m also working to develop a morning routine that gets me off to a good start. So far I’ve incorporated reading something related to personal growth for 20 minutes while I savor my morning coffee.
- I completely decluttered my office – a much-needed project that I’d been procrastinating on for years – by doing just a little bit each day. I shredded over ten years’ worth of old bank and credit card statements, purged and reorganized files, and cleared a ton of junk off my desk. The result – I now feel a lot more peaceful when I’m working, and I know where to find things when I need them.
- I also cleared out over 700 old emails. Now that the office is organized, my next step is a complete electronic declutter by the end of Q2!
- I started scheduling a designated time every week for processing mail, paying bills, and taking care of business-related administrative tasks. This one change alone has had an amazing impact on my stress levels – I’m keeping up with my personal stuff and it no longer piles up to the point of overwhelm. Plus, that nagging fear of what might be falling through the cracks has gone away.
- I went on a creative planning retreat, and came up with all kinds of new ideas for my business. Related to this, I’ve also started doing research for I book I’m going to write, dedicating time to it every single day. Stay tuned – I’ll be starting to post articles as I explore ideas for the book in the not so distant future!
- I took a big step out of my comfort zone and initiated social invitations with a few people who I want to cultivate relationships with. This is a big change for me – I’ve always been the type of person who takes a more passive role, waiting to see who drifts into my life, and leaving the ball in their court. This year, I decided to be more intentional about who I spend time with. Jim Rohn is known for saying “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” So I’m making more of an effort to cultivate and nurture relationships that bring out the best in me – and hopefully I do the same for them!
- Finally, I improved a lot of little things in my environment and wardrobe, like buying an air purifier and some decorative plants, experimenting with essential oils (they really can help to regulate energy levels, emotions, and sleep!), and replenishing my stock of sweaters and workout gear.
Wow, as I typed all of that out – and it took two writing sessions to do it – I realized I really did accomplish a lot over the course of the last three months. And most importantly, it’s all a result of taking small, nearly effortless kaizen-based steps (well, the sessions with the personal trainer aren’t exactly effortless, LOL, but it wasn’t a huge step from my regular exercise routine). And that brings us to the first lesson:
Lesson #1: Keep track of the changes you’re making.
Whether it’s in a journal, or on a designated tracking sheet (as soon as I figure out how to make the one I’m using available, I’ll share it), or whatever system works for you, when you’re working on making positive changes in your life, it’s important to keep a record that you can pull out at any time and see how much progress you’ve made.
Our brains tend to forget the positives, and dwell instead on the gap between where we are and where we want to be. We’re wired for frustration. Consciously short-circuiting this mental rut by reminding ourselves of the growing distance between where we are and where we were with documented evidence helps to zap frustration and keep our enthusiasm levels high.
Lesson #2: Keep your goals manageable.
Our brains also have a limited attention span. When we try to focus on too many things at once, it just seems to clog up the neural networks, kind of like having too many programs open on your computer simultaneously. I quickly discovered that I became overwhelmed by trying to make 7 different changes or improvements every week, even if they were each small and easy by themselves.
While it’s perfectly fine to have a lengthy list of goals, or several different areas of life where you want to change, it’s far more efficient to work on 1 or 2 at a time, knock them out, and move on to the next. It’s the same principle as focusing on individual tasks throughout the day, rather than juggling or bouncing back and forth (see my earlier blog post, “Focus Enemy #1: Multitasking”). When we multitask, we feel like we’re doing more, because we’re busy, busy, busy, but when we measure output, we actually get less done than if we concentrate on one thing at a time (and the quality of what we do get done is lower than when we’re focused).
While I know and mostly avoid the dangers of multitasking when I’m working, impatience sent me spiraling into the trap of trying to juggle too many changes at once. Going forward into Q2, I’ve narrowed my focus back down to three general areas: Career, Health/Fitness/Image, and Environment/Relationships. It’s a lot easier to keep up with 3 intentions, and after 13 weeks, that will still be a heck of a lot of changes for the better.
Now that you’ve gotten a peek into my progress so far this year, I’d love to hear from you! How is 2019 shaping up for you? Are you making progress toward your goals or intentions for the year? If so, what system or tools have you found helpful to stay on track? If not, what’s been getting in your way? Let me know in the comments below!