Change can often be difficult. Changing your job, your diet, or even your car can sometimes seem so overwhelming you hesitate to start. An ancient Eastern philosophy called kaizen offers valuable insights into how you can disrupt your fears and more easily move through change.
Why is change hard?
A brief look at how our brains are structured helps to answer this question.
It seems our brain evolved in different stages. The oldest part of our brain is known as the reptilian brain, or brain stem. It actually has the same shape as a modern alligatorís brain. This is the part of our brain that controls our breathing, heart rate and vital functions.
A more recently developed part of our brain is called the mammalian brain, or the midbrain. Other mammals all have a similar section within their brains as well. It controls emotions and our fight-or-flight survival response.
The newest addition to a human brain is the cortex. Itís the outermost layer that covers the rest of our brain. It essentially is what makes us human. Rational thought comes from the cortex, as well as art, science and music.
A problem arises when these three brains do not function in harmony. This is often what disrupts your efforts to make changes in your life. Your rational mind may want to get more exercise, but the midbrain often responds to the idea of change with fear. Your fight-or-flight response kicks in and the safety of your couch suddenly looks far more appealing than heading to the gym.
How can kaizen help?
The kaizen philosophy is summed up in the classic quote from the Tao Te Ching: ďThe journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.Ē
Itís the concept of using small steps to accomplish larger goals. A great benefit of this approach is that it bypasses your midbrain and the fight-or-flight response.
If you have a goal to get more exercise, you may plan to start by joining a local gym and working out for one hour every day. This seems like a great idea to your rational brain, but such a drastic change to your life often triggers your internal fear responses.
Your midbrain may start to worry about the time it will take, what other responsibilities wonít be met, what the unknown gym is like, who will be there, how you could hurt yourself on the machines and other often irrational fears.
Whereas, setting a goal to walk for 5 minutes a day is much less of a change. And therefore, the midbrain views it as much less of a threat. For this reason, youíre naturally much more likely to carry through with small goals rather than large ones.
How to put kaizen into practice
An excellent way to start using kaizen is to ask yourself some simple questions. Your brain loves questions and will naturally look for answers.
Questions are also very non-threatening and will allow your brain to relax as it processes possible solutions. When the brain is relaxed, the three brain parts can work together more effectively. This has been shown to boost creativity and allow your ideas to flow.
For example, if you want to exercise more, try asking yourself how you could include a few more minutes of exercise in your day? What opportunities do you already have to be more active?
Itís important to keep your questions positive. Wondering why you donít exercise enough will keep you stuck. But asking what types of exercise you would enjoy or have the most fun doing will give your brain a much more helpful starting point.
Also remember to keep your questions light. Asking yourself how youíre going to make a million dollars this year would not be very helpful. A high-pressure question like this will trigger your midbrainís fear and stress responses the same as an over-sized action plan.
A better approach would be considering if youíd like to learn any new skills that would benefit your current workplace. Or if you have your own business, finding something small you could do to attract one more client.
When you give your brain time to naturally come up with its own ideas on how to achieve a goal, often the result will be a plan that youíll enjoy and all parts of your brain will stand behind.
One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, by Robert Maurer