Kaizen: Taking Small Steps to Make Big Changes
Sarah Harvey is the author of the book Kaizen: The Japanese Secret to Lasting Change. After living the London publishing rat race for a while, like so many of us, she wanted a change. For Harvey, yoga didn’t provide it, and meditation didn’t do enough on its own. She wanted active change, but couldn’t get her mind right on exactly how to do it. The biggest challenge for this successful woman was an unhealthy attachment to her phone. She had to figure out how to break its unnatural grip on her mind.
At one point, Harvey was transferred to Japan to do the same kind of work she was doing in England. While living in the land of the rising sun, Harvey came across kaizen, the philosophy of taking it one step at a time. She’s been happy ever since.
Can you tell us a little about your book and the Japanese concept of kaizen?
I came across the concept of kaizen when I was living in Japan a few years ago. The word roughly translates as “good change” in Japanese. It emphasizes making change using very incremental steps. It originated as a business theory in post-war Japan, and is cited as a key factor for how some of the iconic Japanese businesses, such as Toyota, found their success. Kaizen has since been exported beyond the realm of business. Organizations such as the NFL and the National Health Service in the UK have both found inspiration from its concepts.
In my book, I show how kaizen can be applied to your own life to influence habits and behaviours. Rather than requiring anything drastic, the emphasis is on changing your habits in tiny incremental steps. It’s as simple as focusing on an aspect of your life that you want to transform and then thinking of the smallest step you can take towards that goal.
What led you to write the book?
I worked in the publishing industry for many years before moving to Japan. I had worked on a lot of diet, health, and lifestyle books that promised a “magic bullet” to change people’s lives. However, the advice was usually drastic, and so it felt like it was setting people up to fail. When I came across the concept of kaizen, I realized it was something that could genuinely help a lot of people.
Taking small steps to create big change is classic wisdom found in many cultures. But kaizen seems to be a deeper, detail-oriented study of this practice, making it unique. Would you agree?
Yes. When I started writing the book, I kept coming across classic proverbs about taking small steps for change—you know, the sort you see peppered across Instagram, usually misquoted with a dodgy font and a sunset in the background. The way kaizen differs is to offer a formal framework for making these changes. It provides an easy way to set goals and track them. In the book, I offer lots of advice on how to decide what parts of your life to transform, how to then make those changes, and most importantly, how to stick to them.
Everyone has bad habits they’re trying to rein in. What’s stopping us from making the improvements we want?
In short—our brains! People are creatures of habit and find comfort in habitual behaviours, whether positive or negative. We behave habitually for good reason. It would be exhausting to constantly pay attention to every single action we do, like walking up the stairs or cleaning our teeth. Habits help us to automate some of our actions so we can conserve energy. When this becomes a problem, however, is when habitual behaviours become something that’s not good for us. For example, I have a bad habit of scrolling through my phone before bed even though I know it affects my sleep patterns. Kaizen is effective in bringing about positive change because the emphasis is on starting as small as possible and making the tiniest change towards your goal, and this helps to circumvent our brain’s natural inclination to resist change.
How do positive rituals impact our efforts to get rid of bad habits, especially those that have become deeply ingrained?
The problem with bad habits is the initial rush from indulging them. Whether it’s popping into Zara to buy a top that you don’t need or having a cigarette when you’re stressed, bad habits offer a short-term buzz. Positive rituals give us an alternative sort of buzz. The more we feel the benefits from making changes, the more we want to do it.
For example, I started to transfer 20 quid into my savings account every time I managed to not buy an item of fast fashion. The joy of watching my savings go up replaced the temporary high I got from buying the new item I didn’t need. It’s impossible to change deeply ingrained behaviour overnight, but new rituals help to chip away bad habits by replacing them with something more positive. The more these rituals are reinforced, the easier it is to see the long-term benefits.
Kaizen is quite an old concept. How does it apply in today’s world?
The great thing about kaizen is that change is at its core, so it’s eminently adaptable. I would argue that, if anything, it’s even more applicable in contemporary times. Modernity creates incredible pressure on our emotional, social, and financial lives. All kinds of things compete for our attention. Modern technology sees to it that we’re hardly ever free from the pressures of the outside world by allowing them to constantly buzz at us from devices in our pockets. Kaizen helps people to step back, take stock of what is working and what isn’t, and then put a framework in place to help facilitate change.
Would you mind sharing a personal anecdote about overcoming a bad habit using kaizen?
My cell phone is the big one. I noticed that in recent years, I’d developed an unhealthy relationship with my phone. I always felt like it had to be near me, and that I had to be on call at all times. I would spend hours scrolling through Twitter and Instagram before bed, and then my sleep patterns were disrupted.
Even the small changes to the way I interact with my phone have made a huge difference. At first it was just moving my social media apps into a hidden folder, making it harder to automatically press on them when I was bored. Now, I try to limit my usage to certain times of the day, and I use internet-blocking apps to control my urges. I also put my phone on airplane mode for a couple of hours before I go to sleep and leave it in a separate room when I go to bed.
I’d be lying if I said I was a completely reformed character—the stress and boredom of lockdown brought back some unwanted habits. But now I’m far more aware of my relationship to my phone and its effect on me. Just making a few small changes has put me in control of my phone habit, and my sleep quality has definitely improved.
You mentioned lockdown. During this unique moment of isolation, what wisdom and rituals do you find most helpful?
I feel like a lot of us have fallen into some bad habits during the lockdown—I know I have. It’s been such a stressful period, and it’s completely understandable that people will gravitate towards what gives them comfort at this time. That could be anything from online shopping to drinking too much wine. The thing I’ve found most useful, and something I’m keen to emphasize throughout the book, is to not be too hard on myself if I don’t achieve something or behave in a way I’d like. Good change isn’t necessarily linear, and it’s completely fine to have a setback.
At the risk of labelling myself a luddite, I’ve found formal breaks from technology really helpful. I have the Forest app on both my phone and laptop. It’s designed to help people beat screen addictions. I try to take a rest from the internet at least once a day and go for a walk. It’s so easy to get sucked into the news cycle, but I also recognize that it can destroy my mental health if I’m engaged with it every second of the day. I also started to do five minutes of meditation when I first wake up in the morning. Reconnecting with my body and trying to tame my mind a bit has turned out to be helpful as well.