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Kaizen: approach your goals gradually

On Monday, we talked about financial goals, and gave ourselves a checkup on any 2010 goals we made regarding money. Next Monday, we’ll rethink any personal goals we might have (weight loss? watch less TV?), and track our progress for the year.

So I thought today, I’d repost this one from more than two years ago about a nifty way to approach a new habit. I admit I haven’t practiced this method in a long while, but I’m re-motivated to do so with some new ideas I’ve had while on vacation. Let me know what you think…

The following was first posted on August 1, 2008.

I‘ve been testing out the theory that it takes 30 days of consistent action for that action to become a habit. So far, the theory has not really worked for me. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that I picked a very busy season in my life to start a new habit – between April 2 and June 30, we had three weeks when we didn’t have house guests.

Still, though, I could have seen some improvement in my life, but I really didn’t witness too much, other than my being slightly more aware of those habits in my life I do want to change.

I’ve been mulling over why this may be the case. A few weeks ago, Zen Habits had an article that I think may shed some light for me.

Kaizen is a Japanese word that basically means continuous but very small change. This idea can really increase the momentum needed for habit change, because it works up to change gradually.

The truth found in the Bible – “you reap what you sow” – can actually be applied here as well. If you choose to continually cultivate soil and plant good seeds, your reward is a good crop.

And how this Japanese word applies to the analogy is that a farmer doesn’t fertilize the soil, prepare the land for planting, plant the seeds, water the soil, and continue nursing his crop until it’s ready for harvest all in one day. He does these things a bit at a time, and after patience, work, and forbearance, he is rewarded with a bountiful crop.

Applying Kaizen to habit change

Photo by Michael Fillion

Say you’d like to start waking up an hour earlier. You could approach this goal two ways:

1. Set your alarm an hour earlier, fight your body’s natural tendencies the next morning, and make it crawl out of bed, even when it just wants to sleep. After doing this consistently for 30 days, your body, mind, and spirit should be used to it, so it is therefore a new habit.

2. Or, set your alarm two minutes earlier, and when you wake up the next morning, you can hardly feel the difference. Set it two minutes earlier the next day, thereby making it four minutes earlier than when you first started. Chances are, it won’t feel too differently either. Continue with waking up two minutes earlier every morning, and after 30 days, you’re now waking up a full 60 minutes earlier. Your body was asked to gradually change, and it probably took its cues a bit gentler.

Now, technically, either method could work. My guess is that it depends on your personality, your stage of life, and how difficult this potential habit change is. But after three months of trying the “old school” method of consistently doing a difficult action with the hope of it becoming a habit, I think I’ll try the “kaizen” method this time.

My goal for habit change

I’m going to see how this method works for me. In 30 days, I’d like to include exercising three hours a week into my routine. That’s 30 minutes a day, with one day off. This means in one month, I’d like to enjoy the habit of working out three hours that week. The next 30 days is “training” up for that rather easy goal.

  • Week 1, I’d like to work out a total of at least 60 minutes. That’s one hour. Hardly anything.
  • Week 2, I’d like to work out a total of at least 90 minutes. One and a half hours. Totally do-able.
  • Week 3, I’d like to work out a total of at least 120 minutes. Two hours.
  • Week 4, I’d like to work out a total of at least 150 minutes. Two and a half hours.

You’ll see the first week is six days with 10 minutes of exercise. The second week is 15 minutes – only a five minute increase. The third week is 20 minutes, six days a week. The last week is 25 minutes. Each week is a five-minute daily increase. In my opinion, a five-minute increase is almost nothing. Yet in 30 days, I’m working out 15 minutes more per day.

I’m hoping that in 30 days, I’ll have worked up to 30 minutes a day, six days a week. Then I can start my habit change goal of consistent, regular, beneficial exercise.

Your turn

Do you have a habit in your life you’d like to replace? Does trying to replace an unwanted habit with a wanted one seem overwhelming sometimes? I know it does for me. But since habit change should be for the long-haul, it’s worth pursuing methods that produce lasting results.

We need to shower ourselves with grace as we pursue parenting, home management, and being a loving spouse, that’s for sure — but we also need to honor our Maker with our lives by being good stewards of what He’s given us.

Photo by chema.foces

Think of those little things in your life that, stacked on top of each other, build a wall that prevents you from being who you really want to be.

• Do you want to become more of a reader and less of a TV watcher? Then this month, gradually replace two hours of TV-watching time with reading time.

• Do you want to stop drinking soda and drink more water? Gradually replace your daily soda intake with water, until you no longer drink soda at all.

• Would you like to go to bed by 10 p.m. instead of midnight? Slowly call it a night a few minutes earlier each night, until you find yourself yawning and ready to hit the sack by 10.

On Monday, we’ll talk more about how to pick personal goals, but maybe you’re already in pursuit of some personal development.   Either way — what habit in your life would you like to change?  Muse on this over the weekend…  And remember, habit change tends to work best when we stick with only one, so pursue the thing most on your mind.

Do you have a method of changing habits that has worked well for you in the past? I’d love to hear about it.

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Alison @ Femita

    Gradual change or radical change, it has always been a dilemma for me. I feel that gradual change is more effortless, but also doesn’t give me the satisfaction that a more radical approach can give. I quit smoking from one day to the next without any help and to this very day it’s still one of the things I’m actually proud of.

  2. Debbie @ Cheaper by the Bakers Dozen

    I’m glad you added the caveat that personality is involved here. Some people really are “all or nothing” types, but Kaizan appeals to my realistic side. Maybe the best side of Kaizan is that it helps one get from the planning stage to do the Doing stage. Plans are pretty worthless unless they lead to something 🙂

    And since most of us are moms here, may I add that helping your children make small changes vs. expecting them to immediately “get with the program” is also beneficial in the long run (and will help them to feel like you’re coming alongside them and not looking down on them.)

  3. Debbie @ Cheaper by the Bakers Dozen

    Just realized I spelled Kaizen wrong both times in my previous comment. As a home schooling mom, I had to come back and try to correct it. You can deduct a few points from my final comment grade for that! 🙂

  4. Lindsey@ PiecefullyHome

    I didn’t realize their was a name to my approach towards habit changing! I’ve been putting this gradual approach to life goals for many years now. 🙂 While I’d love to make radical changes all at once, I know that I’m the type to get burnt out too quickly. I’d rather make more gentle and gradual changes, it’s more of a guarantee that I will stick to it.

  5. Molly

    I’m working on this in terms of food. I’m slowly watching that what I eat is GOOD for me and not pure crap. That means that every day, I’m trying to pay attention to what I eat. So far, I’m eating fewer baked goods, so that’s a start!

  6. Andrea Pokorny

    I’ve never heard of this approach. I put myself on “challenges” (often) in hopes for permanent change. Some things stick, but exercise always starts out strong then disappears altogether.

    It’s funny because just last night before I fell asleep, I thought “I REALLY need to make exercise a habit”…for all the many positives it has. I’m going to try this method.

    I would LOVE to make exercise a habit…like my morning coffee!

    Thank You

  7. Keya

    Thanks Tsh. I should really try to take this approach with my eating habits. I too have been doing the old school method. Just chaning one “thing” at a time but trying to change that thing completely. Maybe instead of soaking every grain, for instance, I will try soaking just my saturday morning pancakes for a week. Then move on to something else. This should be an interesting experiment. Thanks for the insight!

  8. Katie

    Love it! I had this approach with nursing. The goal of a YEAR sounded so long but day by day it was much more managable. My goal would be the end of the week, then a month and before you know it we made it to a year! Great word thank you!

  9. prerna

    Hi Tsh,
    I love this approach and I find that taking the “tortoise” way of slow and steady always results in the most enduring of changes. I did this when I wanted to start waking up early and it worked.. and it does work for pretty much everything else as well:-)

  10. Rochelle

    I love this idea! I tend to want to be perfect at everything the first time I try it. I also am disappointed in myself after one time I try to make something a habit it doesn’t just naturally stick. Ridiculous thinking, I know. If I just gradually increase each day I will be “perfect” at it that day and each day it might be easier for all my mental stumbling blocks.

  11. imene

    I can’t count the times I told myself I should stop drinking soda, sleep earlier or wake up before the kids. Thank you for the tips, I will do it the Kaizen way this time

  12. Ella @ Frugal Ella

    I love things like this that are simple. I tend to rush in, try to do everything at once and then I get so frustrated when I feel overwhelmed, and then I give up because I’m not making any progress. I’m wondering if I’ve ever tried this method and the only thing I can think of is that I apply it to my housecleaning. I tried doing it all in one day, but it was too much to devote a whole day to it. Instead I clean a room a day, which is much more doable.

  13. Debi

    This is a wonderful post and oh, so true. I often try to make major changes – but when I take ‘baby steps’ I find myself in a new place before long.
    Thank you so much for the reminder – timely for me.

  14. Robin

    Gradual change has always worked best for me. I would love to get more exercise, but with 3 little ones, I’m having a hard time getting more exercise than playing tag in the park.

  15. Paula

    Thanks so very much for the reminder that with patience, wonderful things can be accomplished! You have inspired me to get back on track with my walking! Thanks again!

  16. charis

    i like that idea! i need to change my body clock and instead of doing the extreme shocking way, i am going to try the gradual approach. my body will probably thank you.

  17. Kristy

    It seems like gradual change is the type of change that sticks.

  18. melissa @ the inspired room

    I really like this concept, it goes against my natural instincts to want instant change and instant results, but it is actually much more realistic and doable. The busier I get in life, the more I’m realizing I have to take small steps towards many things if I want to make progress on everything.

    Gone are the days I could focus on one big thing at a time!

  19. Bryony Boxer

    Thank you for introducing the concept of Kaizen. I am going to research it some more.

  20. Daisy

    Here’s a thought — when trying to build a new good habit, the kaizen approach is definitely better for me, as I don’t flame out quickly, get angry for not making my goal, and then give up/retreat. But — when it comes to killing off a vice for some reason cold turkey works better for me. Thoughts about why the diff?

  21. Jenna

    Not allowing certain things in my house (junk food / soda) is a great way not to have it be around to tease me. Also, making sure you set boundaries for time (heading to bed by 10PM means no late phone calls or emails).

  22. justin

    “For it is to be observed in this, as in all other alterations from our ordinary way of living, the changes must be made by gentle and insensible degrees; and so we may bring our bodies to any thing, without pain, and without danger.”
    -John Locke, 1692, “Some Thoughts Concerning Education”.

  23. Jackie Lee

    It seems like this term is popping up all over the place! I’d never heard of it then saw it 4 or 5 times in the last day or so. Thanks for the great explanation. I think this would work great for drinking more water/less pop. I am an all or nothing kind of person, and I recognize in most instances it doesn’t serve me well. I’m going to try to add one glass of water ~ decrease 1 glass of pop each day.

  24. Sharon

    oooh, I’m kind of an all or nothing type, too…this is a great approach that I might just have to learn to try, because honestly, the “all or nothing” isn’t working too well!

  25. Janet Whitehead

    Great post! I’m curious if kaizen worked for you, Tsh. I found this because I was curious about what all is ‘out there’ about Kaizen for Moms, because I do use kaizen techniques in my coaching. I coach creatives and I coach moms.. and both do tend to be ‘all or nothing’ people.. and often it does end up nothing, because the expectations are so high that even getting started is overwhelming. That’s really key for kaizen: the steps are so laughably small that all the habits of ‘not showing up’ (whether to creative projects, organizing, fitness, etc etc) are ‘fooled’ into not triggering. The concept for getting up earlier that you suggest rocks for kaizen. As a coach though I’m curious if the exercise one worked.. it actually would still be considered big steps for kaizen.. love to hear more!

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