Transform Your Life With Baby Steps

In our last post ‘The Kaisen Way to EPPP Success,’ we talked about ways to overcome the human brain’s resistance to change. Although human beings have a side that loves change, innovation and newness, we also have a side that resists change and always seems to revert back to the status quo. This dynamic constantly creates challenges when it comes to implementing changes in our lives.

While it’s easy to commit to big goals that will introduce important changes in your life, it’s much harder to take the steps necessary towards reaching those goals. It’s not difficult to begin taking steps – the difficulty comes with follow-through over the long-haul. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, get out of debt, keep a regular exercise routine, learn a new skill, then chances are you know what I mean. No matter how committed you might be to changing something in your life, you always tend to revert back to what you’re used to.

In my previous post I suggested that a proven solution to this dilemma is a method known as the Kaisen technique. The goal of the Kaisen method is to make the steps towards your goals as small as possible. By taking baby steps, your brain is enabled to habituate new behaviors in a way that bypasses your natural resistance to change. In this follow-up post I want to continue sharing some of the insights from Robert Maurer’s book One Small Step Can Change Your Life, including what we know from brain science about why the Kaisen method works.

Innovation vs. Baby Steps

Robert Maurer describes innovation as “a drastic process of change.” This is the type of change that occurs “in a very short period of time, yielding a dramatic turnaround. Innovation is fast and big and flashy; it reaches for the largest result in the smallest amount of time.” Some examples Maurer gives of innovative change are:

  • Diets that ask you to cut out all your favorite foods at once;
  • Quitting an addiction ‘cold turkey’;
  • Austerity plans for getting out of personal debt;
  • Jumping into risky social situations to conquer shyness;

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with innovative change. The problem is when we assume that innovative change is the only way to change. This assumption causes us to set unrealistically high expectations for ourselves, so that we get trapped in an all-or-nothing frame of mind. As Maurer explains:

“We ignore a problem or challenge for as long as possible, and then, when we are forced by circumstances or duress, we attempt to make a large leap toward improvement. If the big leap lands us on greener territory, we congratulate ourselves, and rightly so. But if we slip and fall, the resulting pain and embarrassment can be devastating.”

Tricking the Middle Brain

The Kaisen technique bypasses our natural resistance to change through baby steps that are so small we can’t possibly fail. It’s important to realize that this isn’t simply a matter of lowering standards as a concession to human weakness. On the contrary, the Kaisen technique flows with the natural design of the human brain.

Scientists often talk about three different parts of the brain. The bottommost part of the brain is often referred to as the reptilian brain. This is the part of the brain that controls basic bodily functions like keeping the heart beating, falling asleep and waking up.

In the middle is the mammalian brain. This is the part of the brain that regulates emotions, body temperature, and the right-or-flight response that enables us to respond appropriately to danger.

The topmost part of the brain (which also wraps around the rest of the brain) is the cortex. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for reasoning as well as for everything that makes us distinctly human such as art, science, music and even civilization itself.

When human beings want to implement an important change in their life, habituate new behaviors or establish new routines, it is the cortex that takes care of this. The cortex embraces change pretty easily since it specializes in identifying problems and coming up with solutions. The problem is that the middle part of the brain—the part of the brain that controls emotions and gives us the fight-or-flight response—is afraid of innovation and sabotages our best efforts to introduce change into our lives. In his book on the Kaisen Method, One Small Step Can Change Your Life, Robert Maurer explains how our three-brain structure hijacks our best efforts to change ourselves:

This three-brain arrangement doesn’t always function smoothly. Our rational brain directs us to lose weight—but then we eat a bag of chips at one sitting. Or we try to come up with a creative pitch for a new project—and our minds go blank as fresh concrete.

When you want to change but experience a block, you can often blame the midbrain for gumming up the works. The midbrain is where you’ll find a structure called the amygdala (a-MIG-duh-luh). The amygdala is absolutely crucial to our survival. It controls the fight-or-flight response, an alarm mechanism that we share with all other mammals. It was designed to alert parts of the body for action in the face of immediate danger. One way it accomplishes this is to slow down or stop other functions such as rational and creative thinking that could interfere with the physical ability to run or fight.

The fight-or-flight response makes a lot of sense. If a lion is charging at you, the brain does not want you to waste time carefully thinking through the problem. Instead, the brain simply shuts down nonsessential functions, such as digestion, sexual desire, and though processes, and sends the body directly into action.…

The real problem with the amygdala and its fight-or-flight response today is that it sets off alarm bells whenever we want to make a departure from our usual, safe routines. The brain is designed so that any new challenge or opportunity or desire triggers some degree of fear. Whether the challenge is a new job or just meeting a new person, the amygdala alerts parts of the body to prepare for action—and our access to the cortex, the thinking part of the brain, is restricted, and sometimes shut down….

The solution to this problem is simple – take baby steps!

The little steps of kaizen are a kind of stealth solution to this quality of the brain. Instead of spending years in counseling to understand why you’re afraid of looking great or achieving your professional goals, you can use kaizen to go around or under thee fears. Small, easily achievable goals—such as picking up and storing just one paper clip on a chronically messy desk—let you tiptoe right past the amygdala, keeping it asleep and unable to set off alarm bells. As your small steps continue and your cortex starts working, the brain begins to create ‘software’ for your desired change, actually laying down new nerve pathways and building new habits. Soon, your resistance to change begins to weaken. Where once you might have been daunted by change, your new mental software will have you moving toward your ultimate goal at a pace that may well exceed your expectations.

Kaisen in Action

How does this look in practice? Maurer gives some examples. If your goal is to stop overspending, he recommends “Remove one object from the shopping cart before heading to the cash register.”

If your goal is to begin an exercise program, “Stand—yes, just stand!—on the treadmill for a few minutes every morning.”

If your goal is to manage stress, then “Once a day, note where your body is holding tension (your neck? Lower back? Shoulders?). Then take one deep breath.”

If your goal is to keep the house clean, “Pick an area of the house, set a timer for five minutes, and tidy up. Stop when the timer goes off.”

If your goal is to learn a foreign language, “Commit one new word to memory every day. If that’s too hard, try learning one new word each week.”

If your goal is to get more sleep, “Go to bed one minute earlier at night, or stay in bed one minute later in the morning.”

If your goal is to add regular meditation into your schedule, and yet you can never keep it up, what about meditating for just one minute a day?

Don’t laugh off these little steps, as bizarre as they may sound. Again, let me quote from Maurer about why baby steps are so effective:

“These little actions usually sound bizarre to the uninitiated. But if you have struggled to make a big change—to drop twenty pounds, to change careers, or to steady a sinking romance—and failed, then you might appreciate how small changes can help. Remember, big, bold efforts to make a change can be counterproductive. Many of these efforts don’t take into account the weighty obstacles that may lie in the path: a lack of time, tight budgets, or a deeply ingrained resistance to change. As we’ve learned, radical programs for change can arouse your hidden and not-so-hidden doubts and fears (What if I fail? What if I achieve my goal—and I’m still unhappy?), setting off the amygdala’s alarms. Your brain responds to this fear with skyrocketing levels of stress hormones and lower levels of creativity instead of the positive, consistent energy you need to reach your longterm goals.

Small actions take very little time or money, and they are agreeable even to those of us who haven’t laid up bulk supplies of willpower. Small actions trick the brain into thinking: Hey, this change is so tiny that it’s no big deal. No need to get worked up. No risk of failure or unhappiness here. By out foxing the fear response, small actions allow the brain to build up new, permanent habits—at a pace that may be surprisingly brisk….

“I once met a woman who wished to exercise and had even bought an expensive treadmill for her home. She still found herself avoiding exercise. I just can’t bring myself to do it, she thought. So she turned to kaizen. For the first month, she stood on the treadmill, read new newspaper, and sipped her coffee. For the next month, after finishing her coffee, she walked on the treadmill for one minute, increasing by a minute each week. During these early months, her small actions would have struck most people as ridiculous. But they weren’t, really. She was developing a tolerance for exercise. Soon her ‘ridiculous’ small actions had grown into the first habit of running one mile each day! Note that this gradual buildup to a steady program is the exact opposite of the usual pattern, in which a person starts off with a burst of activity for a few weeks, but then returns to a comfortable spot on the couch.”

If you are a psychology PhD preparing for liscencure and wondering how the Kaisen technique might apply to your EPPP test preparation, read our earlier post The Kaisen Way to EPPP Success.

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