They just sound so slow and inefficient. I mean, when we decide we want something in our life to change, we want that change NOW! Big steps, giant leaps forward, right? Who has time to wait?
We even make fun of the small steps approach. Remember the movie “What About Bob?” with Bill Murray? If you haven’t seen it, check it out. Murray plays the role of Bob, a dysfunctional obsessive-compulsive recluse who follows his psychotherapist on vacation, and learns how to “Baby Step” his way to a more functional life.
Baby steps may have worked for Bob, but we don’t really want to be Bob, even if he was a funny and sweet guy underneath all his neuroses.
Small steps have a stigma, and this keeps a lot of people from giving this approach a try.
It’s unfortunate, because small incremental steps may be the most effective way to create the lasting changes and big results we want.
What skeptics don’t understand is how the process of kaizen, or continuous small steps forward, works with the way our brain is wired, while big steps work against it and tend to trigger resistance mechanisms. In a previous post, I wrote about the way any type of change triggers a fear response in our brains, and how kaizen tricks our brain and slips under this “fear radar” (see “Using Kaizen to Slip Past Your Brain’s Fear Radar”).
In this post, I’m going to talk about how kaizen-inspired small steps create new pathways in our brain, and once these new neural grooves are established, they create a “momentum avalanche” where the change we were working toward becomes our new normal, and suddenly we’re easily able to make big leaps forward.
Getting Into the Groove
In his book “One Small Step Can Change Your Life – The Kaizen Way,” Robert Maurer, PhD, describes this process:
“As your small steps continue and your cortex starts working, the brain begins to create ‘software’ for your desired change, actually laying down new nerve pathways and building new habits. Soon, your resistance to change begins to weaken. Where once you might have been daunted by change, your new mental software will have you moving toward your ultimate goal at a pace that may exceed expectations.”
It’s like the difference between trying to bushwhack your way through the jungle versus following a well-worn path. As the new mental pathway becomes more established, you encounter less resistance, the going gets easier, and you can make faster progress.
On top of that, as you keep following the new mental path and establishing the new habit, your old way of being starts to fade, just as an unused trail gets overgrown with weeds and underbrush.
Kaizen and Rollercoasters
Imagine you’re on a rollercoaster. After you’re locked into your seat, the cars slowly begin to move forward and up the first hill with the help of a motorized chain. Progress is slow at first, as the cars inch their way up the incline. It seems like you’ll never reach the top.
Then, all of a sudden, the lead cars reach the top of the hill. There’s a tipping point where enough of the cars have passed the summit, gravity takes over, and suddenly, with a rush, you’re flying down that hill, through the twists and turns, and up and down more hills, at a hair-raising speed. Once the coaster passes that initial tipping point, it flies through the rest of the ride propelled by its own momentum.
That’s a good analogy for how kaizen works. Those small, seemingly insignificant steps at the beginning are like the motorized chain that pulls you along to a tipping point. At first, it seems like you could measure your progress in inches. Maybe even centimeters.
But if you stick with the small steps, there comes a point where you reach the top of the momentum hill and suddenly your progress accelerates. Suddenly that habit you were struggling with, or that goal you were inching toward, takes on a life of its own.
The habit becomes second nature. Resources become available. Opportunities present themselves. You start to enjoy, or even crave, the excitement of new challenges. You want more. You’re easily able to take bigger action steps.
You’ve passed the fear barrier.
All of a sudden your brain is working with you, instead of against you.
Inspired by an example Maurer gives in “One Small Step Can Change Your Life.” a few years ago I decided to put the principles of kaizen to the test by changing my exercise habits.
Actually, at the time, my only exercise habit was not to exercise. I was a dedicated couch potato. I repeatedly made resolutions to start going to the gym every day – big, massive action! – and those resolutions rarely lasted beyond the first session.
So I decided to give kaizen a try. I started out by getting on the stair-climber that was parked in my living room, or jogging in place, during one commercial break every evening. About 30 seconds. That step was so small I couldn’t come up with an excuse not to do it, so I kept at it. Over the course of a few weeks, I gradually upped the time to a few minutes.
Then, one day, I noticed an ad for a running class. It promised to take me from the couch to a 5K, and I only had to commit to two evenings a week. That didn’t seem so bad, so I signed up. A bigger step, but still pretty small. Over the course of 2 months, I went from not running at all, to about 35 minutes of run/walk intervals.
Then I ran my first 5K, and somehow I managed to run the whole distance (I was motivated to keep up with a man in his 80’s who kept passing me…). I didn’t set any records, but that stoked my momentum even more. The next thing I knew, I was joining a gym so I could cross train and increase my speed. I signed up for more classes. Eventually I even challenged myself to take a class for hard core runners to boost my speed.
Over the years, there were even more momentum tipping points. In the beginning, I had no interest in longer distances. But lo and behold, after a few years, I was running 10Ks, and then one day got it in my head to run a half-marathon – and ran three!
But this mysterious effect of kaizen works on more than just fitness goals. Earlier this year, I decided to develop a habit of stepping outside my comfort zone. I started with the littlest of things – going new places, driving different routes, changing up my schedule, tackling difficult conversations.
After about two months, something kicked in – I started to get addicted to the adrenaline surge and feelings of accomplishment when I did something outside my “zone”. I started looking for bigger challenges – like confronting real fears.
The next thing I knew, I was traversing a high-ropes obstacle course in the tree-tops and zip-lining, exploring LA in a car by myself, starting up conversations with strangers, and taking dance lessons.
I was suddenly jumping into things that I had wanted to do, but had always thought were “impossible” for me.
And lest you think this phenomenon only works for me, a friend tried this on her 4 year old daughter who she was struggling with to get to clean up her toys. They started with putting away one toy a night. After a few nights of this routine, her daughter suddenly decided she would put away four toys! That may still not sound like much, but for the parent of a four-year-old, this was a major breakthrough.
If you’ve been skeptical of giving kaizen-inspired small steps a try because you want big results fast, I challenge you to pick one habit or goal that you’ve been trying to motivate yourself to take big action on for a while, but haven’t. Think of a few tiny actions that you can take regularly that would move you in the direction of that goal.
Consistency is the key. Repetitive action is what helps those new neural pathways to form. Pick steps that you can do every day.
Let’s say you’ve wanted to clear your clutter and become more organized. A few potential small steps might be devoting 5-10 minutes every day to tackling a stack of old papers, or eliminating one piece of clutter a day, or hanging up your coat when you walk through the door, or processing the receipts in your pocket or purse every evening.
Or let’s say your goal is to move up in your career. Possible small steps could be to spend 15 minutes a day reading or listening to a podcast in your field to expand your knowledge, or taking an online course to learn the skills you need for the next step up the ladder, or spending 5-10 minutes a day building better relationships with your colleagues.
I hope these examples have sparked a few ideas of your own. Kaizen really can transform your life. I’d love to hear how you plan to test out the small steps approach in your own life – let me know in the comments below!
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