How ‘kaizen’ got my 2020 off to a great start

Lots of small, incremental changes have made a big difference to the start of my year

I’ve never been a fan of big, lofty new year’s resolutions. They always seem like a recipe for disappointment. Inevitably, a few weeks into January – or, if I do really well, early February - I always reach the point of failure. So what’s the point? It just leaves me feeling crappy about the whole year, and my life. There must be a better way!

This year, the first book I read was Kaizen by Sarah Harvey. I had never even heard of this Japanese word, but the subtitle grabbed my attention:

“The Japanese method for transforming habits, one small step at a time.”

I don’t know about you, but when I think about goals and habits, I tend to think big. I gravitate to some significant thing I want to change in my life, or achieve. It’s not like this is bad, but it can set us up for lots of failure and disappointment.

I’ve long been a fan of the work of Dave Brailsford. He is the cycling coach who transformed British cycling, and Team Sky (now Team INEOS) with a philosophy of ‘marginal gains’. If you make enough small improvements all across an organisation, the end result can be dramatic gains. After never having a Tour de France winner, a British cycling team is now winning it most years. There is a clear ‘kaizen’ edge to Brailsford’s work.

The actual origin of kaizen goes back to Japanese business. There it is a well-known approach to mapping incremental change. What Sarah Harvey does with her book though is take that approach benefiting the world of sport and business, and apply it to people’s personal lives. What would it look like if we lived our lives with this ‘marginal gains’ approach?

Kaizen offers a way to develop good habits and get rid of bad ones, while being gentle with ourselves in the process. It offers a mindful approach to positive change that feels realistic and sustainable. It is orientated towards making sure we don’t end up feeling shit about ourselves.

While I was reading Kaizen, my wife Rachel was reading The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll. Then, half-way through Kaizen, Sarah Harvey actually mentioned bullet journaling too. I’d never even heard of it before!

After I finished Kaizen, I then went straight on to read The Bullet Journal Method. And the two books complimented each other so, so well.

The bullet journal is about capturing your tasks, events, and notes in, you guessed it, bullet form. You group these by day or week (I do it by day) and keep them together in what’s called a ‘collection’ for each month. You then create an index in the front of your journal so you know where each month’s collection starts.

As well as this, you can create bespoke collections. This is where you set aside a few pages to capture notes about something specific. Like planning a holiday. You then add that to your index too.

And then you can use your bullet journal for habit tracking. This is where the real tie-in with kaizen came to life. It gave me a mechanism to capture some of the small steps of change I wanted to make and log them day-by-day.

In my habit tracker I have things like:

  • 15 minutes reading

  • Drink seven glasses of water

  • Practise guitar

  • No reading news

  • No social media

  • Less than one hour of phone use

  • Prayer and meditation

You’ll see from that list that these are small, achievable things that are not too challenging to do on most given days. Especially when seen simply as a challenge for that day.

And they support each other. Less screen time creates more time for reading and music. (I read six books in January.)

The ‘no reading news’ and ‘no social media’ goals capture the desire I have of only reading news and checking social media on Saturday mornings. They’re about helping me avoid getting sucked into the 24/7 news cycle. It may seem like a big deal avoiding news and social media so much, but breaking it down into a daily habit challenge makes it feel much more manageable.

I can tell you too that not reading news and social media during the week is so much better for my health and well-being! My habit checker tells me I’ve looked at news on just five days in January. And social media is only three. My screen time daily average use has ended up being less than half an hour.

I mention practising guitar above. I bought a guitar with my Christmas money and since then, I have only missed one day of practising. The daily habit tracker has, again, broken it down into small steps that feel manageable. I’m using an online iPad app called Fender Play that is giving me the lessons – between two and ten minutes long – for me to self-learn. Doing something physical like this, learning something new – it feels so good for my emotional and mental health. I would definitely recommend this!

All told, Kaizen – along with The Bullet Journal Method – has had a pretty radical impact on my life so far. Not in some huge, dramatic kind of way. But in small, incremental ways, helping me embed some of the habits I’ve been trying to embed over the last few years. Nothing is for everyone, but if any of this resonates, it’s worth checking out.

New ‘Seven questions’ interview

I’m bringing back the ‘Seven questions’ interviews I started last year. I know many of you enjoyed the snippets of wisdom and insight these brought. The latest is with Roxana Condurache, a Romanian actress:

Read interview