Get 1% Better Every Day with Kaizen Self-Improvement
Now that it’s the New Year, many people are getting out their calendars, setting new goals, looking through workouts and diets—all in an effort to mend mistakes of the past and make this year better. In year’s past, perhaps you would put together some big, hairy SMART goals to change EVERYTHING all at once.
You likely started off strong… only to peter out after a few weeks or months. Yes, big goals have their place. Yet, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s another philosophy—based on small, continuous improvement—which was originally developed to help businesses improve and thrive, that can be applied to our personal lives. And it may, in fact, add up to even bigger gains in the long run. It’s called kaizen, and it’s all about how to get 1% better every day. Yes, just 1%.
What is Kaizen?
Some 30 years ago, a Japanize gentleman by the name of Masaaki Imai wrote what is now referred to as a groundbreaking book called Kaizen™: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success. This book introduced a concept for how to improve competitive strategy via a systematic approach to businesses worldwide. (If you’ve heard about LEAN Manufacturing or LEAN Production, this probably sounds familiar.)
Kaizen translates to “change for the better” or, more commonly, “continuous improvement.” Yet, the concept doesn’t just apply to manufacturing.
Kaizen is about improvement, and it can be applied to all aspects of life—from personal to social to work life. Everything can be improved by integrating the approach systematically.
According to Imai, there are 5 key principles to Kaizen in business:
- Know Your Customer: Create customer value by identifying their interests and enhancing their experience.
- Let It Flow: Create value and eliminate waste—with the ultimate goal being zero waste. Reducing waste isn’t just about materials either; it can be wasted movement, time, defects, over-processing, or variations.
- Go to Gemba: That is, take action! Things need to actually happen. If something is broken or not working, fix it immediately.
- Empower People: Organize your teams and actions with the same systems and tools to reach the overarching goal.
- Be Transparent: Use real data to keep track of performance and improvements and make them available and visible to everyone.
Again, Kaizen isn’t just about business. It’s a life philosophy, rather than a specific set of tools, which is why it can be used to improve so many different aspects of life. In short, the concept is structured to promote “continuous, incremental process changes to support and sustain efficiency at a high level.”
How to Apply Kaizen for Self-Improvement
Throughout each day, we make minor decisions that move us forward or backward. In other words, every decision we make (consciously or subconsciously) moves us either closer to or further from our goals. No matter how well things are working now, they can always be improved. Instead of obstacles, problems can be seen as opportunities to make improvements.
If you have a big goal—for example, if you want to get in shape, lose a significant amount of weight, or improve your overall health—it can (and will) take months or even years of consistent, repeated action. Likewise, if you are fine tuning your health or another aspect of your life, you can’t just tick off a checkbox and walk away. Change and growth is an ongoing process, and you’ll need to continually improve the approach and system as you move forward.
There are, of course, some goals—or milestones, if you will—that do get a big checkmark. For example, once you graduate from high school or college, you’re done! (Though, honestly, it was a process to accomplish the goal.) Other goals, however, are much more likely to be moving targets. A successful career, for example, takes daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly work and is never static. Building a better body is also an ongoing process that requires refinements and improvements along the way.
Even once you’ve reached your original goal, you’re far from finished. For example, if you stop doing the types of things that got your there, you’ll begin to regress. On the other hand, after achieving a goal, many people move to a “next-level” goal, which involves additional adjustments to the process.
Improving your self, your body, your relationships, and your life isn’t a destination. It’s a journey. The goal sets the direction, but you need to ensure the system or structure is continually improved, so you don’t slowly, gradually return to where you started and then begin to fall behind. In other words, you will never “arrive” or be “done.” That’s not meant to be grim or discouraging; on the contrary, it’s encouraging, inspiring and exciting to envision the possibilities. Yes, you are capable of so much more!
Indeed, whether you are looking at improving your personal life, your relationships, health and fitness, or work life, it’s vital to look for small ways to make improvements, challenge the status quo, and fine-tune your daily practices. In other words, continue to get 1% better every day.
Getting 1% Better Every Day
When you’re looking to make significant changes (and to see dramatic results), it can be tempting to get caught up in making big, complex plans. With Kaizen, simplicity is always better than complexity. You see, change is hard, and overambitious change is even harder (when it’s even possible).
Even when the results you want are huge, choose a simple solution you can enact immediately. That small successful change can continue to motivate you as well as help you build the skills to implement bigger changes. Never be afraid of taking small, simple steps. The key is to keep going and growing.
Why bother with small, incremental changes that only lead to getting 1% better? What can that really accomplish? When focused on just one area you want to improve, in the first few days or weeks, you probably won’t notice all that much (if anything). But each of those small improvements builds on the next, compounding the results over time.
Slowly and gradually, the improvements will come. And when the improvements come, they’ll last—because now you have a habit, practice, or strategy for continual improvement.
As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, explains, the results you see in your life are often a lagging measure of your habits.
- Your bank account balance is a measure of your past financial habits.
- Your work or school “grade” or performance is a measure of your past study or work habits.
- Your knowledge is a measure of your past learning or reading habits.
- Your weight is a measure of your past eating habits.
- Your strength and endurance are measures of your past exercise habits.
As you change your behaviors—even very little at a time—you can start really impacting those areas of your life until you become the person you want to be.
From Results-Driven to Process-Driven
Much of our society is results-based. For instance, we read the news or an inspirational story only after the result has occurred. Yet, the results only come from the process—the behaviors and actions—that led to the outcome.
For example, when you read a weight-loss success story, you’re less likely to hear about the wide collection of little things a woman consistently did that led to such impressive results (such as starting her day with a high-protein smoothie for breakfast followed by a 3-mile walk). Instead, the “story” will be about the results: “Woman loses 100 pounds in a year” (likely borne out by making that smoothie and walk her daily habits). Yet, it’s typically only the outcome that’s visible to the world.
It’s not the results that need to change, though. It’s the process behind those results. For example, let’s say you have a dirty kitchen. You take some time and get all the dishes done, wipe down the countertops and cabinets, and sweep and mop the floor. You have a clean and shiny kitchen. But if you don’t change the habits that led to your dirty kitchen in the first place—such as leaving dishes to pile up on the counters or splatters from the stove on the cabinets—within days (or even minutes if you’re baking), your kitchen once again needs a deep clean.
It’s not that you need to clean the kitchen. It’s that you need to create a process—a system of behaviors and actions—to keep it clean (such as having an empty dishwasher or a sink full of hot soapy water as you cook and then cleaning up right after dinner). Once those habits are ingrained, your kitchen will seem to always stay clean.
Rather than focusing on “losing weight,” focus on the skills of consistently eating well and regularly moving your body. In other words, practice the behaviors that will lead you to the desired outcome, so you will maintain the weight you want (depending on your body type).
Why Kaizen is More Effective
Big goals can be overwhelming, stress- and fear-inducing, and difficult to achieve. So difficult, in fact, that even when you’re motivated, you just can’t get yourself to start. Losing 25, 50, or 100 pounds, for example, can seem nearly impossible that first day—so can paying off a $40,000 student debt early. Once you do start, it’s easy to burn out, get frustrated, and just give up (maybe to save it for the next New Year), especially when the results are slow, or the effort is intense.
Kaizen encourages you to break down that big, hairy, overwhelming, scary goal into actions you can easily take. It removes willpower from the equation. It encourages action by being so easy to accomplish, you can’t say no.
As you grow and improve, Kaizen also prevents you from resting on your laurels. Sure, you lost those pounds, saved that money, paid off your credit card, took that class, etc., but you know there’s another area where you can improve and grow. Once you’ve built up the momentum, it’s that much easier to keep going and take on new challenges.
Start today (and every day) with one small question: What’s one small thing I can do today to improve my life (health, relationships, finances, etc.)?
Then do it!
Simple Examples of Kaizen Self-Improvements
It can be as simple as doing a single bodyweight squat every morning after you brush your teeth. Tomorrow, go for two… then three… then four. Or, do one pushup or one 10-second plank.
Maybe your goal is to be more mindful. Start by breathing deeply for 10 seconds or a minute (wherever you need to start). Tomorrow, add a bit more time and build on that. Get just 1% better each day. If you start with just one minute of meditation, within a month, you could be up to over 15 minutes—just by improving by 1% every day.
Want to create a morning routine to start your day off? Start with just one task for five minutes today. Starting tomorrow, you can add another minute each day until your morning routine is something you can’t imagine living without.
Want to hydrate better? Cut out one sugary drink per day. Or, cut your current sugary drink in half (or even by a quarter). Then, build on that. Or, you could choose to add one cup of water per day to your usual consumption until you’ve built up to the right amount for your body (~9 to 12.5 cups per day).
Ready to cut back on smartphone usage? Try delaying when you pick your phone up in the morning by one minute, then two, then three… Or, take three deep breaths before you pick up your phone, then four, then five, and so on, and before you know it, you’ve not only cut back on your phone use, you’ve also began a meditation/breathwork practice!
I’m sure you get the point. Just choose small action steps to take to improve any area of your life. If you do the math, improving by just 1% every day, a seemingly small behavior will double in 72 days (rather than 100 days). In a mere 72 days, you could be twice as good as you are today! And after 365 days (one year), you’ll be nearly 38 times better than you are today!
At first, it will feel slow, really slow—like you’re not even making a difference. As you continue with the philosophy, though, you’ll create your own personal culture of continuous improvement, understanding that you can (and will) always do better. Kaizen is endless—you never stop improving.
How to Handle Setbacks
No one—absolutely no one—is perfect. There will be days when you don’t get 1% better. (There will be days when you might even go backwards.) You’ll sleep longer than you planned, you’ll forget your water bottle when you leave in the morning, you’ll get sick, or you’ll simply forget, be distracted, or simply not feel like it.
No problem. Just wake up the next morning and ask, “What’s one small thing I can do today to improve my life?” Think of it like this: Self-improvement is like brushing your teeth. Yes, you did it yesterday, but you still need to do it again today—and tomorrow. It’s a process that needs to be practiced daily. Lather, rinse, and repeat until it become so ingrained, you feel weird not doing it.
As James Clear explains, “The cost of your good habits is in the present. The cost of your bad habits is in the future.” Many people, unfortunately, prioritize the present over the future, which can make changing habits more difficult.
To make it easier to stick with new behaviors, the most important thing to prioritize is the entry point. Your new workout program, for example, doesn’t start with getting to the gym. It starts with putting on your workout clothes and getting into the car (or walking to the gym). Or, it’s putting on your sneakers and placing your foot on the pavement (for your walk).
So, structure your environment to support your new desired actions. If meditation is your goal, create a space to meditate—even when you’re only meditating for one minute. If you are starting to exercise, put on your workout clothes, lace up your shoes, and step into your workout space—even if that’s just your backyard. If it’s cutting back on your smartphone usage, have a place in the other room where you keep your phone as you sleep. It starts with getting ready and using your environment to trigger further actions.
Making a choice to be 1% better (or 1% worse) at any given moment seems insignificant. Yet, as those moments accumulate over a month, a year, and a lifetime, they can determine who you are versus who you want to be. Success in all aspects is the result of Kaizen—your daily habits and processes—way more than a once-in-a-lifetime (or once a year) transformation.
Prioritize your trajectory today, and tomorrow’s success will follow.