I’ve read more books on habits than is necessary. Yet whenever I see another book on habits, I find myself intrigued enough to pick it up and read it. At this point I can write my own book on habits and the habit making and breaking strategies that actually work.
My latest foray into habit literature was a cream coloured hard covered book by Sarah Harvey titled “Kaizen: The Japanese Method of Transforming Habits One Step at a Time”. The Japanese gave us Mari Kondo, whose tidying up method changed my life. Or at least the number of items I now have in my wardrobe and my purchasing habits. I now shop while muttering “but does it spark joy” before adding to cart. Kaizen I thought, may be just as joyful as KonMari.
Kaizen roughly translates to mean “good change” or improvement. The philosophy behind Kaizen is not change for changes sake, but rather identifying goals – both short and long term – and making small, manageable steps to achieve those goals. Rather than forcing us to make big dramatic changes, the method emphasizes doing things incrementally. Kaizen also assumes that our way of life -working, social and home life – deserves to be constantly improved.
In her book, Kaizen: The Japanese Method of Transforming Habits One Step at a Time, Sarah Harvey explains how to practice Kaizen. She breaks up the method into different areas – health, work, money, home and relationships. Each area is its own chapter and she explains how to practice Kaizen in each area, giving both long-term and short-term examples and tips. She also includes chapters on habits, challenges, and stumbling blocks, because we all fall at some point. It’s important that when we fall, we pick ourselves back up and carry on.
Without naming it as such, I have been practising Kaizen for years. I have long determined that the best way to change habits or start something new is by doing it in small, manageable steps – biteable bites and chewable chunks. Which is why I liked the idea of Kaizen – it’s not about extremes, it’s small steps.
I particularly like the idea for right now. In a time where the future has never been more uncertain, and we are confined to our homes; we do not have the capacity to start embarking on more huge changes. Our lives as it is, have been turned on their heads; and it’s hard to start looking at work, money, home, health, relationships and start making long-term goals when we don’t know what is coming and many goals and plans have been put on hold. Indefinitely.
What is doable right now is focusing on short-term goals – for today, this week or for a month. Perhaps not in each area, but in some. I am looking at Kaizen through the lens of what habits and rituals I can incorporate into my day-to-day that make me feel better, give me some control, and create a better lockdown for me. Being confined to my home and not being able to purchase anything other than essentials means that those improvements are small, involve little or no financial expense and are manageable.
The Kaizen Method
In her book, Sarah Harvey breaks down the four steps to the Kaizen method of transforming habits.
Step 1 – Take inventory
In order to decide what you want to improve on you have to take inventory of what your life and habits look like right now. Sarah suggests taking out a piece of paper and dividing it into sections. Each section will have a different area: Health, Work/career, Money, Home, Relationships, and new challenges. Take note of what each area looks like for you right now and if you are happy or want to change it.
Step 2 – Decide on what you want to change
At the next step you look at one area at a time and focus on those existing habits. Decide what you want to keep, what you want to get rid of and what you want to start doing.
Step 3 – Set up new challenges and hobbies
For every new thing you want to change, you need to decide on what you need to do to change it. For example, if you wanted to exercise more, a challenge may be signing up for a workout program or deciding you will set aside 30 minutes a day to walk around your garden. If it is decluttering, challenges would be broken up into areas and tasks to declutter your space.
Step 4 – Give yourself a time frame
Decide when you want to complete your goal. This can be weekly goals that involve tidying up or redoing areas in your home, weekly fitness goals or little daily habits you want to continue for the entire lockdown (and beyond).
How I’ve been practising Kaizen
Sarah speaks about shinshin inchinyo, a Japanese phrase that translates as “body and mind as one”. She goes on to say that way you feel about yourself in your mind and body has such an impact on everything else in the rest of your life, health is a great place to start introducing Kaizen. It includes both physical and mental health and is where I started.
More specifically I started with my morning routine. I wanted a routine that would start my day in a positive way and allow me do things that energised me for the day ahead. Habits and rituals, I’ve introduced include:
Starting the day with exercise – I set up a new lockdown exercise routine. My goal was to work on areas I don’t usually focus on, these being strength, agility and flexibility. Exercising in the morning is a long-time habit of mine and I love the way starting my day with movement feels. The biggest change has been changing what I’m doing and not running.
Not looking at my phone until after I’ve done exercise – I want to protect that time in the morning that is fresh, clean and full of possibilities. It is my time and I make a point of not looking at my phone – not checking messages/emails or social media. The only time I look at it is if I’m using a workout app for my morning exercise.
Eating breakfast – a sit down breakfast. It is rarely a fancy meal, it comes together in under 10 minutes and is usually a variation of eggs and fruit, a smoothie bowl or oatmeal. The one big habit that I’m trying to break here is not scrolling through my phone during breakfast but rather focusing on the food in front of me.
Morning reading – as a way of removing the itch to scroll, I started reading a few pages every morning while having my morning coffee. I’m not reading novels here, but rather choosing learning type books. I have found that my mind is clearer in the morning and it’s easier to learn and absorb these types of books. It has also helped me avoid the scroll which means I’m learning instead of getting sucked into other people’s energy.
I’m also applying the Kaizen tips to work; but focusing on shorter-term goals. Things like sticking to working hours as much as possible now, seeing what areas I’d like to work on and setting aside time to work on them, whether it means learning new programs, doing courses or just practicing. I’m also setting daily work goals. I use the Alexa Lily Daily Planner which is incredibly helpful for this. It has space to write a to-do list, as well as space to write down a daily focus – the most important task for the day. Before I end my day, I write down the next day’s focus. It’s usually the task that I’ll start the day with, and I decide that if I get nothing else done on my list but that task, it’s been a good day. To try keep a schedule, I’ve started using the time-blocking method I shared here. It’s not fool-proof, and not every day has been great. Things do come up, but having a rough outline of what I need to do and what’s important has been helpful for me.
Ways to Practice Kaizen Now
Throughout the book, Sarah Harvey shares a lot of small things you can do in each area. Some may not be possible right now (like signing up and training for a race, spending time in nature, or things that involve a large financial commitment); but there are so many that are possible. Tiny things you can choose to incorporate into your days to make them better, give yourself some control and look after your well-being. I’m sharing some of her ideas as well as some of mine.
1. Drinking more water – I try keep a wattle bottle on my desk, which is the only way I remember to drink it.
2. Having phone free meals – the exception obviously being if you’re facetiming family and friends (which I do a lot over dinner as it’s a great time to connect and catch up or just share a virtual meal together).
3. Decluttering – she speaks about the Kon Mari method, which is a method that focuses on getting rid of things you don’t need or love and reorganising with what you have already. You can pick a closet, a room, or a shelf. Tidying up and getting rid of what you don’t need makes you feel light and allows room for what you do want.
4. Morning and Night-time rituals – like journaling, exercise, long baths, reading, a face care routine, breathe work.
5. Improving your space – whether it’s setting up a corner in your home as your at home workspace; or changing a furniture outlay in your room. Just moving around furniture can make a space feel brand new.
6. Eating better – as we all have to cook all our meals at home, you get to control the ingredients being used. Spending time learning new recipes or trying out new techniques or ingredients not only relieves stress (cooking and baking can be so therapeutic). The feeling of accomplishment you get when you make something delicious from scratch is priceless.
7. Daily phone calls – we can’t physically spend time with people we love, but we’re lucky to have access to technology that allows us to speak to them and to see them. Set up times to chat and catch up, have virtual parties or cook “together”.
8. Start a new hobby – hobbies may be limited to what you can do at home (and purchase), but there are still options. You can learn to cook/bake, take better pictures, learn a new language (Feige is obsessed with the language app Duolingo), finally finish the books you’ve been meaning to get to, try replanting vegetable roots to grow a veggie garden.
Kaizen: The Japanese Method of Changing Habits One Small Step at a Time was given to us by Pan Macmillan and is available here. Pan Macmillan nor the author approved or reviewed this piece prior to publication. Opinions are our own.
Zissy is the co-founder of Nutreats. She likes to make things, do things and wear things.