Neal Petersen was radiant as he spoke to my daughter’s graduating 6th grade class of “The School by the Sea” in South Carolina. He had recently completed the “Around Alone” race, a harrowing voyage considered to be the Mount Everest of sailing. He told his story, recreating his adventure with such intensity that it felt as if I were there with him, splashed mightily with freezing cold water, holes in my boots, and the mast and my body now dipping again and again under the churning water, under the huge swells.
How did he do it, sailing around icebergs, and eventually around Cape Horn, alone, in the boat he built himself?
“I sailed 195 days,” he said, “one day at a time.”

What do you truly want to accomplish – whether it will take a year or a lifetime – that you could start right now, knowing you are only committing to it for one day at a time?
Are you trying to get more exercise, quit smoking, or write a book? If so, you’re not alone – those are three of the most common New Year’s Resolutions or goals people say they want to achieve. Since we know that only a very small percentage of resolutions are actually accomplished, what has the biggest effect on a person’s success or failure? Wouldn’t it be extraordinary to know the one approach that contributes to success more than anything else?

The Sino-Japanese word “kaizen” means “good change” and refers to any improvement, large or small. In restoration efforts after WWII, it became common practice in Japan to label their emerging philosophy of productivity improvement “kaizen” and the method was famously and successfully adopted by Toyota. The culture of continual, aligned small improvements and standardization yields large results and compounds productivity improvement. This differs from the “command and control” improvement programs of the mid-twentieth century.

Most of us are all too familiar with the shortcomings of the “command and control” method when it comes to changing habits, whether it’s starting an exercise regimen or setting an alarm to “get up early and write.” Even if discipline is maintained for a few short-term results, most often the results are not sustained.

So, with previous tries, you haven’t achieved and maintained your desired goals—but it is important to note that there are certainly other accomplishments in life that you have achieved. How did you get so good at what you’re really good at? It did not happen overnight. It did not happen without your intention and persistence. You mastered certain skills and succeeded with your learning goals through a series of steps, over time.

Building a big dream-come-true simply means making small changes that become new patterns and habits.

Brain researchers have discovered that when we consciously develop new habits, we create new brain cells and synapses. This means that our new chosen patterns of thinking and newly chosen habits become a part of us.

The kaizen method works in complete and harmonious alignment with the way our brain works. Small and continuous improvements are at the heart of small or big change, and when this is the path of change, it has been found that momentum is increased.

Imagine if you needed to change course while steering a large boat. If you slowed down enough to make a sharp turn you would lose all momentum. Then you have to expend a lot of energy to overcome inertia and get back to making any forward progress. But if instead you made a small course correction, you would proceed in the new direction more gradually but without losing momentum.

When it comes to taking actions toward a goal that makes us feel both excited and scared, momentum is affected by things like motivation, optimism and the psychological will to change. One of the biggest drags on our momentum is fear. In her book This Year I Will… M.J. Ryan says, “Whenever we initiate change, even a positive one, we activate fear in our emotional brain. If the fear is big enough, the fight-or-flight response will go off and we’ll run from what we are trying to do.” Our own mind can work against us! We say we want to develop healthier habits that would be good for us, and yet we are often guilty of self-sabotage.

Ryan notes that “Small steps don’t set off fight-or-flight, but rather keep us in the thinking brain…” This is how we keep fear from taking over. Ah yes, Bob Wiley (played hilariously by Bill Murray) practiced this in the 1991 movie, What About Bob? As instructed by his psychiatrist, Bob verbally coached himself to take “…Baby steps get on the bus, baby steps down the aisle, baby steps…” In this manner he conquered his many fears and made slow and steady progress towards better mental health.

Ryan’s advice echoes the kaizen approach of making small, steady improvements. As she explains, you want to stretch yourself out of your comfort zone, but not so far out that you experience stress, fear, or overwhelm.

Can you commit to that? Identifying small steps and then taking them?

*This article is adapted from the Introduction in Barbara Dee’s book,
The Kaizen Method to Living a Healthy Lifestyle (2020, paperback & kindle versions available)

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