Beyond Willpower 2: Small Steps


How does change occur? The practice of creating New Years resolutions promotes a vision of change as something that happens in sweeping fashion. We imagine that we can go from carnivore to vegan by making a sudden, large commitment. Although this is certainly possible, I’ve already mentioned in my last piece how the results of this typically go. In economics parlance, this method is called “innovation.” The kaizen method takes the opposite approach, viewing change as something that happens inch-by-inch–starting with a change that is trivially easy, then building on it once the habit is in place. Instead of going vegan all at once, how about substituting one non-vegan food for a vegan food each day? If innovation is the hare, kaizen is the tortoise.

I was first introduced to the kaizen method through the work of psychologist Robert Maurer. I first heard him on The Art of Manliness podcast and then read his short, but incredibly useful book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life.

Despite its Japanese name, kaizen has American roots. In World War II, with so many young American men fighting the war, American factories needed to keep up productivity. A culture of small change was created and it proved remarkably effective. After the surrender of the Japanese, Americans oversaw the efforts to rebuild the their economy. That philosophy translated into the creation of the extraordinary Japanese companies that still rule the corporate landscape today. Prime among them is Toyota, whose cars frequently win awards for their reliability and attention to detail. Ironically, the kaizen method has been all but forgotten in America, but it still defines the ethos of many Japanese corporations.

I’m sympathetic to those who are skeptical of the Kaizen view. Particularly in America we have a “bigger is better” attitude towards everything. A few measly substitutions is hardly making a dent in animal agriculture’s bottom line. However, what you are doing is much deeper than the value of your actions alone. Small steps need not produce small results. In fact you are creating small victories, which signal a reward to your brain. This rapidly creates a hunger for more achievement.

This is exactly the opposite of what happens when we bite off more than we can chew (pardon all the food puns). When we fail to achieve our goals or see that possibility in the future, it creates fear and anxiety. This activates the amygdala, responsible for stress, and shuts down the prefrontal, responsible for governing judgment and planning, exactly when we need it the most. Kaizen is designed to avoid this problem.

In addition, to small actions, the kaizen method is about asking small questions. “What is one tiny step I can take towards a plant-based diet?” “What plant-based ingredients can I stock in my fridge to make transition easier?” “What is one tasty vegan dinner I can make this week?” “What is one animal-based product I could easily live the rest of my life without ever eating again?”

Whatever questions you ask, it’s important that you can find clear, simple answers. The difficulty on these questions can always be turned up or down. Note how different these questions are compared to “how do I go vegan?” Simple questions stoke our brains to find creative answers to problems that previously overwhelmed us.

Visualization is another incredibly powerful tool in your kaizen toolbox. Michael Phelps would picture his record-breaking swims each night before he went to sleep. He would visualize every last detail from his warm up routine to his last stroke. This allowed him to go on autopilot. When Phelps was on the Olympic diving board, he was going through the motions of a ritual he had pictured thousands of times before. This allowing him to ignore distractions and other unexpected problems.

Maurer calls this technique mind sculpture. It may sound silly, but it’s incredibly powerful. The brain is not so good at distinguishing between imagination and reality. One study showed that imagining yourself practicing piano is about as effective as actually practicing piano. In this spirit, picture yourself cooking a delicious vegan meal and being pleased with yourself. Imagine the taste of each ingredient, the texture of the food, the satisfaction it would bring you. The more realistic your imagination, the better the results. Cooking a vegan meal is not quite the same as swimming in the Olympics, but in this case you are creating associations between vegan cooking and positive emotions.

The kaizen method is so useful because it’s so simple. It short-circuits the mechanism that makes us fail in so many of our attempts at self-improvement. I used going vegan as an example here, but it is frequently applied to subjects as diverse as exercise, meditation, workplace safety, musical practice, athletic pursuits and virtually any other goal people care about. The path to any achievement can be broken down in small, manageable chunks. Lao Tzu formulated the essence of Kaizen with his observation that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Here’s to taking that first small step.


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