Too much, Too soon.
Often in life, we have ambitious goals which we set for ourselves. We want to make dramatic changes to our lives, we want to become better. The problem, is that we often try too much, too soon. We try to go from smoking 20 cigarettes a day to never touching a cigarette again. We try to transform ourselves from somebody who reads a book a year, to someone who reads a novel a week. We try to go from that person who has never exercised in their life, to the person who goes to the gym everyday after work. The problem, is that this approach doesn’t work. Time and time again in life, we set ourselves up for failure by trying to climb mountains overnight.
The limits of willpower.
One of the reasons that this approach doesn’t work, is that we often fail to consider the limits of our willpower. In other words, our mental energy is limited and can be depleted in much the same way as our physical muscles.
In one famous experiment, a Psychologist by the name of Roy Baumeister wanted to test this idea of willpower depletion. In his study, participants were asked to wait in a room containing both a bowl of radishes and a bowl of freshly baked cookies. One group were told they could only eat the radishes whilst a second group were free to indulge in the cookies. A short time after, all participants were asked to complete a series of mental challenges. What the experiment found, was that those who had previously been only allowed to eat the radishes, gave up much more quickly on these puzzles. In other words, their willpower reserves were already running low, having previously exerting mental energy in resisting those tasty biscuits.
When we apply these findings to our everyday lives, every decision we make, every temptation we resist, depletes a small amount of our mental energy. It is simply too taxing for us, to try to go from somebody who indulges in fast food every day, to someone who eats nothing but salads. Perhaps then, there is a better way?
The Kaizen Approach: The power of small steps.
This brings us to what is often referred to as the Kaizen Method. Put simply, this is the idea that we should focus on taking small, incremental steps towards success, rather than trying to affect huge change overnight. If we focused on becoming just 1% better every day, what sort of change could this lead to over a month, a year or even a decade?The peaks of mountains aren’t reached in a single bound; it all begins with a single step. Click To Tweet
In the book The Power of Habit, the author Charles Duhigg gives several examples as to how small, daily habits can lead to massive success in not just individuals, but also organizations and even societies.
To take one example; In October of 1987, a man by the name of Paul O’Neill took over as CEO of the company Alcoa, one the largest producers of aluminium products in America. However when O’Neill took over Alcoa, his focus was not on increasing profits or enforcing large-scale management restructures, he had the simple goal of focusing on making Alcoa a safer place to work.
How did he achieve this? By focusing on the small, daily habits of workers. O’Neill introduced a new system where by all workplace incidents were to be reported within 24 hours. This simple rule lead to a number of small changes within the company, employees were required to wear the appropriate safety gear and more clear health and safety signs were to be placed on the walls of factories. Spillages were cleaned up more quickly and any issue with faulty equipment were treated with a higher priority.
Moreover these small changes focusing around worker safety, spilled over into other areas of the organization, whilst safety conditions improved dramatically, employees also became more productive and happier in their work, ultimately making the company more money.
The importance of keystone habits.
This example demonstrates the importance of keystone habits; small, daily routines which can have a spillover effect into other areas of our lives. Let’s suppose you want to start leading a more healthy, physically active life. Rather than trying to make huge lifestyle changes and to start heading to the gym every evening after work, pick a simple daily habit you can develop. For example, start by completing 10 push ups every morning before you take a shower.
What you will find is that this simple habit of completing 10 push ups every morning will slowly influence your other daily routines. Perhaps you start to drink a little bit more water, eat a healthier breakfast, walk rather than drive to work, maybe you notice yourself eating less chocolate or drinking a little bit less alcohol. When we make one positive change, other small positive changes start to accumulate over time.
What you can start tomorrow, start today.
So often in life, it’s the act of starting a new habit that can be the most difficult step to take. It’s that first push-up that’s the most agonizing to perform or that first line which is the most challenging to write. Thus, we should learn to make the act of starting, as easy as possible for ourselves and build up from there.
I want you to imagine some positive change you have been wanting to make in your own life, but for whatever reason haven’t started yet. Imagine the smallest possible step you can take towards that goal, and do it, today.
Maybe you want to start exercising more? Well do 5 push-ups right now. Perhaps you have been wanting to read more? Well pick a book, any book and read just a single page before you go to sleep tonight. Maybe you have ambitions to become a writer? Well start a diary and write just a single sentence, jot down a simple thought you have every day. What you can start tomorrow, you can start today. What you start today, you can do right now.
Once you have actually established some new routine, focus on improving yourself just 1% everyday. Simply reading a page every evening can become a chapter a night, and suddenly you are reading a book every other week. A 5 minute morning jog can gradually transform into a 10 minute run and before long, you are training for a half marathon. When we focus on making small, incremental improvements, we can finally start to see some positive changes in our lives.
Remember, the peaks of mountains aren’t reached in a single bound; it all begins with a single step.