My Journey With Kaisen

I’m the sort of person who gets big ideas and sets big goals. The only problem with big goals is that they’re incredibly hard to reach. Well, that’s not actually true. Big goals are hard to reach using conventional means.

The normal way of reaching big goals goes something like this. You get excited about a goal that you want to reach. It might be learning a foreign language, implementing a new exercise routine, breaking a bad habit, meditating every day, learning a new skill, whatever. In the excitement of the end-result, you promise to take regular big steps towards reaching the goal.

I know from experience. About five years ago I decided that I wanted to become fit and strong, so I started getting up at 5:00 AM to drive to a friend’s house to do weight-lifting. Of course, with a family and a job, I obviously couldn’t sustain that type of training. When the excitement died down, I realized that I just couldn’t do it. And of course I felt guilty.

When we still lived in England I once decided that I wanted to learn Latin. I got some textbooks and faithfully studied Latin for an hour a day…until I couldn’t keep it up anymore. Then I not only didn’t know Latin, but I was also a failure, having overestimated my ability to persevere.

There have been times when I decided that I was going to become a really good piano player and start practicing with the dedication I had when I was young. Somehow, despite my good intentions, life has a way of taking over and never allowing me to get momentum.

I could go on and on. We all could. I’ve come to realize that the problem is not in the goals we set, but in our method of reaching those goals. What if I told you that there was an unconventional method for reaching goals that is a hundred times more effective and much much easier?

The method I’m talking about is called the Kaisen Technique. The method basically says that the way to reach our goals is to make the steps towards those goals as small as possible. For example, if you want to learn a language, focus on learning just one word a day. If you want to start exercising, just walk in place for a minute in front of the television. If you want to start meditating every day, do it for just give minutes a day. If you are overwhelmed with the amount of dirty dishes in kitchen, just do it for five minutes.

The reason this works is because the human brain is in a state of constant tension between two impulses. On the one hand, our brain constantly longs for innovation, for the excitement of newness. This is why we promise ourselves big things and try to reach new goals. But we also have a part of the brain that longs for stability, for the security of the status quo. Scientists who have studied the human brain have discovered that when we commit to change something in our life, it is the impulse for newness and innovation that is operative. However, over the long term, all our best intentions are sabotaged by the part of our brain that longs to keep things normal and which fears change. All this occurs on a subconscious level that we’re not even aware of. But here’s the point: by introducing change through tiny steps, we can overcome our brain’s natural resistance to change. This is because small steps allow change to occur within a context that is not significantly threatening to the status quo, that feels safe. Then, after our brain has acclimatized to the change, we can increase the size of the steps.

I’ve been exploring the Kaisen technique in a series of articles for the Taylor Study Method. Below are the links to my first two posts about this. Although these posts have been focused on psychology students preparing for their licensure exams, the principles apply to anyone:

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