A Little Japanese Word Makes All The Difference

New year’s goals are notoriously unsuccessful. Most of us fire out of the gate with gusto, eager and bright-eyed with our one words and our big goals.

But come February, when the skies are gray and life goes on minus the holiday merriment? It’s easy to stop caring and trying so hard.

But there’s one time I’ve found when this doesn’t happen—it’s when I add an ingredient that actually gives me some traction with goals. And it’s a little Japanese word that doesn’t even really translate well in English.

It’s kaizen.

Loosely, it means small, continuous change. It’s the idea that little changes, almost unnoticeable on their own, eventually add up to that big change you’re after. The process is typically more realistic and less painful.

Time is an easy example. Let’s say you want to build a habit of waking up an hour earlier. You can go cold turkey and rip off the bandaid, setting your alarm a full hour earlier tomorrow. You’ll probably be tired and groggy for the first few days doing this—possibly more, depending on how hard this is for you.

But eventually, if you keep this up daily, you’ll have built a new habit of waking earlier. “They” say a new habit takes a minimum of 21 consistent days before the neurological pathways in the brain take full effect. (And then longer, for it to fully solidify.)

Or, you could take those 21 days and do a little math. The first day, set your alarm three minutes earlier. That’s it. More than likely, you’ll hardly feel the difference when you wake up.

The next day, set it six minutes earlier. You might feel it a bit, but it’s nothing like a full hour. Then do nine minutes the next day, and so on, getting up three minutes earlier every day. Within 21 days, you’re now waking up 60 minutes earlier than you were three weeks ago—and chances are decent it wouldn’t have hurt nearly as much as ripping off that bandaid.

Work on consistently waking up at that hour until it’s ingrained in your body.

Kaizen isn’t for everyone. But it works for me.


Studies have shown that there’s evidence that we should put more effort into our systems than to our goals. (If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is how your team practices every day.) Kaizen is doing just that, easing in to a Big Goal.

You’re building the habits necessary to keep that goal once it’s reached, while also enjoying the view and not making it needlessly painful.

A few more ways kaizen would work:

• If you want to wean yourself off something, like caffeine or sugar, you’d decrease your amount by 10 percent that first day—that’s basically a slightly smaller cup of coffee or a smaller spoonful of sweetener. But you still get to have some. Rinse and repeat until you’ve cut back 100 percent.

• If you want to read 50 books in a year, it requires time. Set aside five minutes a day for reading (or listening to an audiobook), building up to a full hour by 21 days. If you keep up an hour’s worth of daily reading, that’s logging 344 additional hours in one year. Again, “they” say an average adult reads about 300 words per minute—that’s around 4.5 hours per book. I’d say that’s reasonable to put you well ahead of your goal.

• If you want to swim a quarter-mile without getting winded, first go about one lap in your neighborhood 25-yard pool (that’s back and forth). Two days later, swim two laps. Add a lap every other day, and in less than three weeks, you’ll have built up to a quarter mile. (And kudos to you—this is harder than it sounds.)


It doesn’t have to be this literal and science-y, of course; the spirit of kaizen is that of small, continuous change. So if you’d like to keep your house cleaner on a consistent basis, you’d first start with a simple habit of, say, wiping down the bathroom counter as part of your morning routine for getting ready for the day. Then, build up to bigger habits over time.

If you’d like to know ten of your neighbors this year, you might start with a short walk after dinner every evening and see what happens over time. Who knows, you might find yourself planning a block party by summer.

If you’d like to build a habit of daily movement, you wouldn’t start with a marathon next weekend. You’d start with sliding away your office chair, and adding a box on your desktop to create a standing desk to keep you on your feet. Or you’d count your steps with one of those popular bracelets.

Add a couple sessions of intentional exercise per week, and before too long, you’re working out daily and feeling better.

For me, kaizen is the only realistic way to approach any of my goals—I’m a busy working mom, I’ve got writing deadlines—and well, I’m human and want to enjoy life, too.

If you’re feeling discouraged about your slacker self, you might want to consider kaizen. This approach isn’t for everyone, but I’ve been happy with it.

p.s. – This is also why we do quarterly goals instead of annual goals in Like Your Life.

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  1. Candice

    My husbands company encourages them to use this method to help people embrace change more since large changes are usually met with resistance among lots of the employees who have been working there a long time, but this way they can kinda sneak the change in there. We really like it, too!

    • Tsh

      Makes sense to me, Candice…

  2. Katie Cashin Therapy

    So glad there’s a word for this! And what a slap in the face of a 0-60 culture. Will definitely be sharing this post and message.

    • Tsh

      I never thought of it as a slap in the 0-60 culture face, but you’re right. It echoes the whole living slow sentiment… which I’m all about, of course.

  3. Janet

    I have never heard of that before so thank you. I think this would work better for me too 🙂

    • Tsh

      Sure thing!

  4. Heather

    I have been savoring January this year. Something I don’t typically do. I have been trying to really think about the goals I want to accomplish this year, and beyond. I wrote something similar recently, taking small steps to reach big goals. We want to get to the finish line immediately, but that isn’t typically how it works. Instead of getting discouraged, I am trying to list out the small steps I want to achieve in order to get to those big goals. Seems more manageable, and not quite as discouraging when I don’t hit something when I expect to.

    • Tsh

      Yes! I think it hits right into perfectionism—approaching goals gradually gives lots of room for messing up. Which is good for people who lean towards perfectionism, like me.

  5. Matthew Theis

    Thank you for this post and reminder. I was first introduced to this concept/word by Tony Robbins in his book Awaken the Giant Within. In a world that expects “instant everything,” it is critical to recognize that the best way to create true change is via small, daily progress.

    This has been one of the most interesting aspects of parenting my three teen-age daughters. For them, there was no life before Google, Spotify or Facetime. Thus, when they want something, anything short of “now” is too long. Yet, while we’ve made communications and information nearly instant, we haven’t yet been aply to apply this to weight loss, sports mastery, or other more complicated skills. This is where the concept of kaizen is so important. It is also why (unfortunately), so many people have already given up on their audicious resolutions for 2015.

    • Tsh

      It’s like saving allowance for a toy you really want, instead of just asking for it outright. Saving up makes all the more delicious, right?

  6. Lori

    My comment is on the 21 days to develop a habit. I have been on exactly 21 walks since December 30th (that’s a walk every day), and I would say that it really has become a habit. I was just commenting yesterday on how wonderful I feel since I’ve started walking, and how I really look forward to it. It helps that I listen to Dave Ramsey on my phone while I’m walking, which keeps me motivated to meet one of my other goals this year: financial peace. It’s a great feeling. I leave this comment in the hopes of inspiring someone else to get off the couch and develop a “habit of movement”.

    While I can no longer call myself a couch potato, I am used to going days and even weeks without any exercise (in the case of November and December, it was months). I logged all my exercise last year between cycling and walking, so it was easy for me to see where I needed improvement this year. I am so excited about this fresh year.

    I don’t think “kazen” is for me, but it is important to be intentional about our choices, which your post speaks to. Before last year, I would say I was almost completely sedentary. I set a goal to ride 1500 miles in 2014, and wrote a plan to make it happen. Looking over the results. I was proud of my achievements, but could see I had work to do to keep exercise consistent this year. I have a long way to go, but I’m well on my way to developing healthier habits.

    • Tsh

      I love your daily walking habit! I think it’s so, so smart. Good for you, Lori.

  7. Gina

    I’ve approached my 2015 goals by breaking them down into monthly/quarterly, then setting up mini habits to start the year off right. For example, one of my goals was to write daily, so I set three mini habits (along with my usual water drinking, etc. that I keep track of on my phone) to do one journal prompt daily, do a brain dump before bed, and send one card in the mail every day. So far, it’s kept me motivated and I find myself writing more than the minimum.

    • Missy Robinson

      One card in the mail every day is AWESOME!

    • Tsh

      Yeah, I love that card in the mail thing, too! Fun idea, Gina.

  8. Missy Robinson

    I’m so excited to learn that there is a word for this! Several years ago, I decided that I wanted more strength (okay more firmness) in my thighs. I began doing 15 squats each time I went to the bathroom during my work day. At first I was so sore. Now, it’s been more than five years and I do 20 each time. My thighs are awesome!

    I’ve tried this with various other physical goals, now I need to try it in the areas of home organization and reaching out to others. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Tsh

      My friend Kat Lee does this as well, and I LOVE the idea! So, so smart. She would even text me randomly throughout the day and tell me to do 15 squats, right there on the spot. 😉

  9. Amanda Villagomez

    I loved this post and it makes me excited for your books and Session 7. I am also excited for your upcoming book!

    Reading this post makes me think about my One Little Words over the years and how sometimes it feels like I have not made the substantial changes in my life that I wanted to (related to career/family balance, healthy eating, limiting technology, reading the Bible and praying…). However, I have done little things over time, and I am starting to realize that I have made some pretty significant changes when looking back to multiple years ago. With all those little changes over time, sometimes I forget how far I have come.

    Thank you for talking about the concept of kaizen. I have heard similar concepts before, but not this specific word. I think it is valuable for both reflecting back and looking ahead.

    • Tsh

      Hi Amanda—Fun to see you both over here and at Upstream! 😉

      Yes, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the forest from all the trees, so it really does help to look back and see that wow, I really have made progress.

  10. Erica

    What an inspiring and practical idea. It is a refreshing concept to consider the value of the system vs the goal. Thank you for sharing!!!

    • Tsh

      Honestly, I only read about this idea within the past few months as well, and it was really eye-opening for me as well!

    • Tsh

      Forgot about that post, Kiki! Thanks for digging it up. 🙂

  11. Eileen

    Thanks for writing this! The examples you gave are so helpful for figuring out how this can be applied to my life. 🙂

    • Tsh

      Awesome! Glad to hear, Eileen.

  12. sHU

    love this 🙂 I am a Japan-o-phile (I’m sure there is a better word for that!) and I wholeheartedly agree that many people underestimate what can be done gradually. I’m glad to have a great word to sum up the concept.

    • Tsh

      Japan-o-phile is a GREAT word.

  13. Alexandra Daggett

    The idea of systems is often discussed in our household. Last year my husband read Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows and has been urging me to delve into it (as I desperately need help in this area). After reading this post I have greater motivation to read more about systems and implement more systems. My sanity requires it 🙂 The idea of gradual change is lovely in my mind. The pressure is off to accomplish great change drastically and quickly. It is much more meaningful when we actually arrive at a place of change/growth that we have been wholeheartedly pursuing, not just rushing to accomplish some task that we “must”.

    • Tsh

      Never heard of that book, Alexandra—I’ll have to check it out!

  14. JenCanRead

    I love this. This is pretty much what I’ve been doing without having a word for it. I set a goal to start an exercise routine – 5 mins every day. At the end of January, I’m planning to take a look back, see what worked, and readjust based on small changes. I thought of it as Agile Methodology (IT Project Management stuff for ya) for the body. Kaizen is way better! Great post.

  15. Dona

    i love that there’s a word for this, as it is how I decided to tackle this new year. Slowly, surely, steadily, I will achieve my goals and not procrastinate getting them done. I have broken them into baby steps, set aside 15 minutes a day to tackle them, and already I have two credit cards paid off next month, one pantry cabinet cleaned out, and my fridge almost cleaned out (with fridge coasters!). What a timely post – I love it when life is blending together!

  16. Anjeanette

    I love this!!! I finally realized that if I set impossible goals, I will never reach them! I will never work out every day, or eat perfectly every day, but little by little I can make better choices for myself. I can weed my yard little by little, one bucket at a time and see the slow progress instead of looking at all the weeds and lamenting that I don’t have 5 hours to whip it into shape. Like others have mentioned, I love that there is a word for it. I had no idea!

  17. Cara

    This is a timely and timeless post. I love the word for the lifestyle I’ve been embracing – slow deliberate change. It’s totally worth trying to accomplish something great when I take the time to break it down into incremental steps. One degree of change at a time. I feel like it also adds credibility to the transformation too. Only if I’m patient enough though.

  18. Juliette A

    Hi, I’m very new to joining conversations on a blog. Just started your course Tsh, Paddle Upstream and getting very muddled with technology. However, on ‘kasen’ I think that it definitely builds confidence in your ability to achieve skills and changes. I’m finding that there are so many things I want to learn and achieve. But …I don’t know where to start. This frustration brought me to realising that I needed to declutter and find focus. As I am well over 50 and gradually overcoming health issues, I feel this urge to do so much. There is so much to enjoy in activity but there is a limit to how much I can do in a day. Sometimes I just feel like isolating myself for a long time to get things done but then I realise that I probably wouldn’t!

    • Juliette A

      Probably wouldn’t get them done!

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