June 3, 2019

We’re nearing that point in the year when bright-eyed intentions start to go a little sideways.

The bullet journals begun so diligently in January gather dust.

The morning meditation sessions get shorter and shorter.

Those resolutions made a mere six months ago seem, in retrospect, far too cumbersome.

Enter: Kaizen.

The Japanese term meaning “improvement” requires no apps, journals, or time commitments, but rather a subtle shift in the way you operate.

First coined as a business tool after World War II, Kaizen has come to represent a philosophy of continual progress—a constant recalibration that yields slow but steady improvements, like an ever-hastening tortoise. The goal is a smoother process and increased productivity, which then makes your larger goals more possible.

Kaizen has come to represent a philosophy of continual progress—a constant recalibration that yields slow but steady improvements, like an ever-hastening tortoise.
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Kaizen is traditionally employed in the workplace—the most common example is the Toyota factory line, on which all employees are constantly working to improve the process—but the philosophy can translate to most areas of life.

Want to improve your money skills? Finally establish a writing routine? Get more work done in less time? Consider Kaizen.

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The philosophy, writes Alan Henry on Lifehacker, can be distilled into six steps: standardize, measure, compare, innovate, standardize (again), repeat. Put simply, it’s the practice of thinking about what you’re doing, looking for ways to improve it, making those changes, then continuing to act upon them.

“Kaizen is not change for change's sake,” Henry writes. “It's deliberate, constant improvement, and changes that don't actually bring you rewards shouldn't be made. Productivity is a double-edged sword after all. You can spend more time trying out new things and researching new tools than you would actually doing your work.”

Instead, you’ll want your changes to help you out in some way—by eliminating busywork, for example, or establishing accountability.

Interested? Here’s how to incorporate the philosophy into your daily life.

Start Small

Change is exciting! The possibilities seem endless! But pause before you get carried away, since tackling too big a task can lead to frustration or stalling when things don’t move as quickly as you’d hoped.

Instead of trying to improve your largest, most important project, start with something manageable, like your lunch routine.

Say you buy lunch most days each week. Rather than vowing to make lunch every day for the next month, look at why you’re buying lunch so often. Is it a matter of convenience? Boredom? Does the small splurge help keep your budget on track in other ways? Once you’ve figured that out, take a small step toward improvement. Perhaps you bring lunch on Mondays, while your motivation is high. Or maybe you just switch to a cheaper option and continue to buy lunch.

The focus is on progress, not an overhaul.
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Once you’ve made that first small change, you can prepare for the next shift, then the next.

Remember: The focus is on progress, not an overhaul.

Find Focus By Auditing Your Time

Once a week or so, scan your recent tasks for ways to improve. You may find yourself spending hours fielding emails, for example, or regularly waiting on input from colleagues before you can really get cracking.

Outside of work, you might realize that heading home, rather than straight to the gym, usually means you skip your planned workout.

Tools like your phone can help clue you in to time spent swiping through social media, or checking email, while keeping track of your day’s activities can give you an idea of what gets done in 24 hours.

Once you have a better picture of how you spend your time, you can adjust accordingly. The same goes for in-the-moment realizations, too: If you get halfway through a task only to realize things could be far easier than you’ve made them, pause and jot that thought down. The next time you go to perform that task, make the necessary adjustments and see how things go. Remember, it’s all about the small pivots.

Get Feedback

The term “performance review” sends a shiver down even the straightest of spines, but asking for more casual feedback can be gamechanger. A boss or co-worker’s perspective can offer much-needed distance, and help you to see potential in hidden places. And as you look at what to change and how, don’t forget to consider the way that others do things.

Progress doesn’t always require reinventing the wheel.

Consider a Kaizen Blitz

In corporate-speak, a short period of rapid improvement is referred to as a “Kaizen Blitz.” A group of employees will focus on one particular pain point—say, a clunky payroll system—and rework the process to remove the hold ups within a few days, following a set of guidelines.

The business approach is a multifaceted battle plan, but you can apply the same idea to your own life.

Say you typically pay your bills over the course of each month. Some are online only, while others come as paper statements. You pay your internet from one account, and credit card from another. You have a hazy idea of how it all comes together.

The key is to stay small, reworking tiny tasks that make a large impact overall.
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After your next payday, try a Kaizen Blitz: Take a look at what’s been working so far, streamline payments, centralize accounts, create a spreadsheet or two, and clean everything up. You’ll get everything done for that month, and set yourself up for future success. The key is to stay small, reworking tiny tasks that make a large impact overall.

Leave Room to Waste Time

Let’s face it: 100% productivity is a recipe for burnout. Sometimes we need to do things inefficiently to give us time to process, or to discover something we would have otherwise skipped over.

Kaizen is all about making progress—not turning you into a machine. Be sure to avoid changing too much at once, and consider using any gained free time to go for a walk or take a bathroom stall dance break, rather than taking on more work.

Just as small steps can lead to massive progress, so too can small breaks prevent massive burnout.


Read next: Tackling a Big Goal? Focus on Your Small-But-Mighty Moves

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