WASHINGTON, December 29, 2011 ― Many of us have given up on New Year resolutions, or we make them knowing we do not have the resolve to follow through. The stumbling block with most resolutions is the same: Action incites anxiety in human beings. Unless we desperately want to reach our goal, any lint-sized bit of fear or dread will stop us.
There is a simple way to counter action anxiety. We can take ridiculously small steps to our desired destination. Instead of eating healthier, add two foods that boost your mood to the grocery list. Instead of losing 50 pounds, throw the first bite of every candy bar into the garbage (seriously).
Taking small, non-intimidating steps is called “Kaizen.” Most of the time Kaizen is applied in the business world to improve productivity and employee satisfaction. It was introduced to individuals by Robert Maurer, Ph.D., in his book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life, The Kaizen Way (Workman Publishing Company, NY).
Very small steps work because they tip-toe around our brain’s amygdala, which is responsible for setting off the body’s “fight or flight” response in times of danger. This alarm system is aces if you are confronted with a herd of water buffalo, or an erratic driver. Your body gets buzzed with cortisol and adrenaline that helps you focus and stay safe. There is, however, a snag in the works.
Our amygdala finds any change or challenge dangerous. As Grant Frazier put it, “Life is full of obstacle illusions.” Even thinking about doing something new results in some amount of fear or anxiety. By taking small, sneaky steps beneath the amygdala’s dignity to acknowledge, we can make changes without tripping the alarm.
Repeating seemingly insignificant steps, day after day, is all that is required to create new habits. For example, Michelle has always wanted to learn yoga, but she fears being too old, not limber enough, and not having the time. Michelle’s new yoga mat, gathering dust behind the bedroom door, reminds her she has failed again.
What if Michelle finds two yoga poses that she enjoys, and does them before slipping into bed each night? It will take her less than one minute and she can choose poses she is comfortable with. It may sound silly, but by doing two stretches everyday (or even one), she will eventually notice the exercise becoming a habit. Once the practice becomes automatic, Michelle can up the ante and add another pose.
Simon may dream of winning the Pulitzer for fiction and never tap out the first sentence. Yet, Simon can manage writing for five minutes a day. Five minutes per day over 30 or 40 days will sprout a habit of writing. It is still a long journey to the Pulitzer, but it remains a pipe dream without the discipline to write.
“It is a most mortifying reflection for a man to consider what he has done, compared to what he might have done,” wrote Samuel Johnson. The beauty of Kaizen is that we can accomplish more by doing less, repeatedly. It is simple, it works, and you can continue to dream big. Kaizen is not about the size of destinations, but about getting there.
The only thing that new Kaizen-ers struggle with is choosing a small enough step. It requires courage to take anxiety-innocuous actions for two reasons. First, because most of us would rather just leap from here to there, right now, without really having to do the work. Second, some adults are embarrassed by taking baby steps. Yet, once people enjoy small successes, they usually become Kaizen converts.
There are times in life when leaps of faith may be called for. Opportunities often need to be grasped. Like most useful things, taking little steps is not a rule, but a tool. Moving by the half-inch satisfies our thoughtful cortex without disturbing our emotional mid brain. It is a rare win-win for mind and emotions.
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