Coaching, Ideas, & Inspiration for a Better Life & World

Earth Day, Kaizen, and Incremental Change in Daily Life

As part of a wellness coaching program, I recently had the opportunity to learn more about Kaizen, which is Japanese for “improvement” or “change for the better.” Often utilized in business leadership and manufacturing, the Kaizen philosophy involves applying small but continuous changes to various processes. A main idea is that rather than trying to change everything at once in large steps, one can achieve significant and lasting change by focusing on incremental but sustainable steps.

compact fluorescent bulb

Many organized Earth Day environmental activities take a similar approach, suggesting something small that each of us can do, in hopes that it will all add up to something significant. Such activities might include replacing a few conventional light bulbs with compact fluorescent or LED bulbs, bicycling or walking a few short trips where you might normally drive a car, starting a compost pile, or replacing the weather stripping below one’s doors.

The trick, of course, is maintaining an activity, as some of us will gladly take an action step on the day of celebration, but then largely forget about the theme until the following year. Sometimes this is simply because it takes repetition and perhaps a bit of friendly reminding and support to make our new behaviors a habit. In other cases, it may be because we attempted so much change at once that we found too difficult to maintain—e.g., attempting to walk everywhere over the course of a day or two, after we previously refused to walk more than half a block for any trip. Other individuals simply allow the day to pass, because they feel it must be something grand or nothing at all. They poke fun at the smaller suggestions like putting in light bulbs, arguing that it will never make a difference. The only option is to buy a hybrid car and move into an ultra-efficient Passiv Haus home, and that’s a big commitment—so they put off any further consideration until next year.

Simplified versions of this tortoise versus hare approach can be applied to our own lives as well, as suggested by authors including Robert Maurer (One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way). This expands far beyond environmental friendliness.

For example, maybe we once enjoyed being able to jog for 30 consecutive minutes, but have gotten out of shape and want to get back to that point. However, we’re no longer in the habit of running or even walking regularly, and going out for a 5- or 10-minute run sounds intimidating. In fact, when we tried it a month or two ago, we ended up in so much pain that we hated it. Assuming there are no medical barriers, why not just go for a 5-minute brisk walk to get the body moving, and increase it by just a minute a day? In only a month, we’ll have passed the 30-minute mark, and will have additional confidence and strength. From that point, it may no longer be such a stretch to start speed walking or jogging for short intervals.

What is a result that you’d like to create in your life or in the world, that might seem intimidating at first, but is very doable and sustainable if broken down into small increments? What are the very first steps you can take today, tomorrow, and the next day?

Dave Wheitner is a life, career, and transition coach based in Pittsburgh, PA who welcomes phone-based clients from around the world.

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