One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer

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In setting a large goal, we often face inner resistance and overwhelm, and quit or fail to start. Use the Kaizen approach to accomplish great tasks through a series of small acts.


  • Using very small steps to achieve a larger goal.


  1. Ask small questions to remove fear and inspire creativity.
  2. Think small thoughts to develop new habits (without even moving a muscle!)
  3. Take small actions towards larger goals so that you cannot fail to start or continue.
  4. Solve small problems even in the midst of an overwhelming crisis.
  5. Grant yourself and others small rewards.
  6. Recognise small moments – they may be small or ordinary but crucial and often ignored by everyone else.


  • Take such a small seemingly trivial step so you cannot fail to start or achieve it e.g. if you have a goal to lose weight but feel resistance at the thought of doing an hour’s exercise each day as it feels too much, why not start with just 1 minute a day, marching in front of the television – then see where the success of these small steps leads you.
  • Attempts to take large, radical change often fails because it heightens fear.
  • Small seemingly insignificant change helps the human mind circumnavigate the fear that blocks success, creative new ideas and solutions.
  • An alternative to spending years in counselling trying to understand why you are afraid of a particular thing or resistant to achieving a goal, is to use the Kaizen approach to take small easily achievable steps to go around or under these fears.
  • When life gets scary and difficult, we tend to look for easy, familiar or avoidance solutions, rather than in the dark discomfort where real solutions may lie e.g. someone who fears intimacy may constantly change jobs and cities to avoid deep or long lasting relationships, someone in an unsatisfying marriage may focus on a new venture such as moving house or having another child to avoid the real issues in the relationship.
  • Expecting fear to arise and seeing it as a normal part of life and a natural sign of ambition, rather than seeing it as something going wrong in life, helps you to embrace it and continue to achieve your goals rather than resist, self-sabotage, or quit.
  • The more we care about something, the more fear shows up.
  • There is a gift in fear – it alerts us to a challenge. And we can rise to challenges by adopting one or more of the 6 Kaizen strategies below, rather than remaining paralysed or overwhelmed by crisis.


  • “What shapes our lives are the questions we ask…” (Sam Keen).
  • Your brain loves small questions and won’t reject them – if the question is too big it may trigger fear and eliminate fun, creative, playful solutions.
  • A small question is not demanding or scary – it’s fun!
  • Examples of small questions:
  • If health were my first priority, what would I do differently today?
  • (Example answer – to avoid overeating and keep on track to lose weight, order regular meals at a restaurant and ask the waiter to put half of the meal in a doggie bag before serving).
  • What is one way I can remind myself to drink more water?
  • (Example answer – every time I go to the kitchen I will drink a glass of water, keep a bottle of water in the car – even if it’s empty it will remind me to THINK about drinking water more often).
  • How can I incorporate a few more minutes of exercise into my daily routine?
  • (Example answer – I could do 10 press ups on waking and before going to bed).
  • If you are a writer, you don’t need to start with any grand themes in mind, you can start with a single incident e.g. a plane crash, and ask small questions to get you started  e.g. “ Who is the person in the plane? Why are they there? What year is it?”
  • As you ask yourself small questions repeatedly over days or weeks, your brain (specifically the hippocampus which stores information) will have no choice but to address it – you are programming your brain for creativity and it will begin to give you answers, creative breakthroughs and ideas for improvement. It takes time to develop new mental pathways, hence the need to ask yourself the same small question daily.
  • Other good small questions:
  • If you are stuck: Whom could I ask for help or inspiration?
  • If you are unhappy: What is one aspect of my job that I enjoy? How can I expand on this in a small way?
  • If you are trying to reach a goal: What is one small step I could take now towards reaching my goal?
  • Even if things are going well, to avoid complacency in business, health, relationships, career, other area: What one small change I could make to improve X?
  • If you have a conflict with another person: What’s one thing I like about this person?
  • If you feel pessimistic or negative: What is one thing that is special about me/my organisation etc.
  • Asking such small questions changes your focus in the direction of creative ideas, solutions and positive aspects (rather than negative) which you can then capitalise on.


  • Visualising works – studies show that people who solely imagined practicing a piano exercise repeatedly showed similar increase in brain activity as those who actually practiced on a piano for the same period.


  • No matter how much you practice small questions and thoughts, at some point you will need to take action. Starting with trivial actions so small you cannot fail will motivate you to begin on your path to success.
  • Example: to stop overspending, remove just one item from your shopping trolley before heading to the tills, to start learning a foreign language commit to learning one new word a day or week.
  • The ideal solution is always the smallest effective one. E.g. people experiencing the worst consumer experiences state they could easily be turned around by an apology or demonstration of concern. Clinic staff were asked, “How can you improve patient’s experience of delays for free or that will demand only a few seconds of your time?” This led to suggestions such as explaining reasons for delays to patients, offering rescheduling, doctors apologising on seeing patients and saying thank you for choosing the practice etc. The implementation of such small actions led to doubling of the patient satisfaction rate and 60% less defections from the practice.
  • Don’t small steps yield slow results? Small steps and the kaizen approach takes patience – it works because it is targeted at overcoming the mind’s resistance to change by getting you started. The compound effect of consistent small steps and lots of small wins adds up … just think of climbing a mountain!
  • Kaizen as a persuasive technique – studies have shown that asking people to take one initial small action (e.g. wearing a pin for a charity) makes them more likely to take a larger action (e.g. making larger financial donations to the charity).


  • Problems often start small and build up. By training yourself to spot and solve small problems you can avoid dealing with larger more painful problems later on.
  • Example: BP ignored 356 “small” oil spills between 2001 and 2007 despite concerns from regulators…until 2010 when the worst oil spill in history happened with 200 million gallons of crude oil pumped into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Pay attention to subtle warning signs e.g. if you misplaced your car keys, ask yourself if you are juggling too much? Are you so distracted that this could eventually lead to a more serious mistake? Look back at past major mistakes – what were the small warning signs along the way? What small actions could you have done to address them instead of ignoring them?
  • Example: Due to the high impact of a tiny error and resulting disaster, US navy ship officers in relation to navy aircraft take-offs and landings on deck, are trained to look for the slightest signal that things are going wrong e.g. walking the ship 8 times a day looking for “foreign objects” – anything that could be sucked into a jet’s engine.
  • Example: People are more willing to break the law in neighbourhoods where small crimes go unnoticed or unpunished.
  • People often have a predilection for large scale solutions and have a blind spot for solutions to small problems that can have a significant impact. Example: One very small problem leads to diarrhea – dirty hands, and most households where diarrhea is present have soap but only 15-20% use it before handling food or babies. It is easier to teach a person to wash their hands leading to a reduction in cases of more than 40% than it is to supply new plumbing across a region at high costs and complexity, or to supply treatment AFTER the illness has taken hold.
  • Try to locate the smaller problems within a larger disaster to prevent overwhelm and start moving towards a solution.
  • “Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts” (Tao Te Ching).


  • For employees, large rewards encourage focus on big grand ideas, often complex and costly. Small rewards (as simple as a fountain pen) could instead encourage many smaller suggestions that could lead to great results collectively. E.g. at Toyota, of 1.5 million suggestions a year, 95% were implemented.
  • Often a small expression of gratitude can go a long way – when US sailors decide to re-enter private life, their biggest complaint was feeling underappreciated at work.


  • Example – British physician, Edward Jenner’s observation that milkmaids immunity from smallpox had derived from their exposure to cowpox in the natural course of their job led on to him perfecting the technique of vaccination by looking at who did not get the disease.
  • Example – a flight attendant observed that passengers were not eating olives in their salad which were removed leading to a huge saving of 0.5 million dollars a year.
  • Example – if you hate your job but cannot think of another career, recognise one moment each day when you enjoy it, and notice a pattern building which could lead to you identifying a new career e.g. noticing that you enjoy asking people about, and helping them with their problems could lead you to a career as a counsellor.
  • Train yourself to focus on the small positive aspects of your partner instead of on the big flaws – what you focus on grows.

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