Why Might Small, Comfortable Changes Work Better than Radical Steps?

How to be happier.
Sept. 8 2009 6:57 AM

Why Might Small, Comfortable Changes Work Better than Radical Steps?

I just read a short, interesting book by Robert Maurer, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way .

I’m surprised I hadn’t known about kaizen before. The Japanese term kaizen is an approach of using small steps of continuous improvement to bring about change. Instead of pursuing radical changes – which are ambitious, difficult, and often don’t succeed – you take small, comfortable steps. Maurer points out that although kaizen developed in a business setting, it also applies to individuals.

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His example: after telling his patient Julie about the importance of taking time for herself and getting exercise, instead of giving the standard (and unrealistic) advice that she spend thirty minutes a day on aerobically challenging exercise, he said "How about if you just march in place in front of the television, each day, for one minute ?"

When she returned for her next visit, she reported that she had kept with that routine (which wasn’t hard!). This didn’t add up to much exercise, but it gave her a more optimistic, energetic frame of mind, and she was willing to take on more. Within a few months, she was doing full aerobic workouts.

When a goal is too intimidating – "How can I switch careers from law to writing?" "How can I have a baby as a single mother?" "How can I start my own business?" "How can I lose sixty pounds and get in shape?" – you don’t even want to think about it. Pushing yourself to think of the smallest possible steps toward that goal keeps it from being too scary.

Also, if you ask yourself a specific question often enough, you’re bound to come up with some useful answers.

Maurer suggests a few kaizen questions to prompt ideas:
-- If health were my first priority, what would I be doing differently today?
-- How could I incorporate a few more minutes of exercise into my daily routine?
-- What’s the smallest step I can take to be more efficient?
-- What can I do in five minutes a day to reduce my credit-card debt?
-- How could I find one source of information about adult education classes in my city?
-- Whom could I ask for help? [Yes! Ask for help ! Why is it so easy to overlook this extremely effective strategy?]
-- What’s one small, loving act I can do today for a friend, acquaintance, or stranger?

For my own happiness project, I've found that these kinds of questions have helped me focus on concrete actions. Instead of asking, "How can I get more joy out of life?" I asked, "What’s one thing I can do for ten minutes each day that would give me a bit of joy?" Instead of asking, "How can I be a better parent?" I asked, "What’s one thing I can change about our mornings to make them more pleasant for everyone?" It’s hard to think of an answer to the first question; it’s easier to think of an answer to the second question.

That’s why with my happiness project, I focus so much on my resolutions. These concrete, manageable steps, attempted every day, are what have made me happier since I started my project. (If you need help keeping resolutions, here are twelve tips .)

* If you're looking for a way to make small, concrete, comfortable changes, try using the Happiness Project Toolbox .