When things seem overwhelming or impossible, I think of a little word I learned while living in Japan: “Kaizen.” Just saying that word out loud gives me some comfort and allows me to breathe again. When a client gets that glazed over look while contemplating the prospect of daunting step toward personal growth—whether it’s losing fifty pounds, reconciling with a loved one, or kicking an entrenched habit—I teach them about Kaizen.
Kaizen is a Japanese word for incremental but continuous improvement. It really means, “a little improvement every day.” The concept of kaizen was a product of Japan’s defeat in World War II. The country was a smoking wreck. They had waged war, committed kamikaze, spent all of their resources, and been bombed into near oblivion. And, to top it all off, the supposed deity they had sacrificed everything for—Hirohito—quit his job as “god.”
How does a country rebuild from absolute financial, social, and spiritual devastation? A little bit every day.
Through this kaizen philosophy, the Japanese were able to outwit national shame and depression by engaging the colossal rebuilding process a tiny bit at a time. This allowed Japan to transition slowly but inexorably from defeated underdog to the well-adjusted economic power we know now.
Kaizen is, of course, a very different philosophy of change than westerners are accustomed to, since it hinges on lots of tiny efforts instead of a single “heroic” effort. We prefer “kicking the habit,” “going cold turkey,” “getting it done,” “going for it,” etcetera, to methodical creeping. Kaizen replaces the western “go big or go home” philosophy with a “go a little, but keep going,” approach. Researchers are finding that especially for otherwise overwhelming tasks like recovering from addiction or digging out of staggering debt, a kaizen approach can be highly effective.
Neuropsychologists who have studied kaizen strategies believe that an incremental approach to change tricks our brains into accepting giant, ambitious goals. When faced with the enormity of certain tasks, our primitive brain wants to fight or flee. The fight impulse may help rally huge amounts of adrenaline for the task. But adrenaline is fleeting and the most ambitious tasks require more persistence than power.
So once we’ve hurled ourselves at a personal growth goal for a bit—“I’m going to quit smoking,” “I’m going to lose fifty pounds,” “I’m going to fix my marriage”—we tend to wear ourselves out, allowing the flight response wins. We retreat. We give up. We run. Kaizen, on the other hand, operates as a sort of functional denial in the face of overwhelming situations. It’s the discipline of intentionally missing the forest for the tree right in front of you. Because how does one person clear an entire forest? One tree at a time.
Many of the families I’ve worked with feel that they have lost everything. They are financially tapped out. Their basic assumptions about family, love, success, and life have been turned upside down. They feel betrayed and embarrassed and sad and angry.
How does a family rebuild in the wake of trauma, or addiction, or mental illness, or betrayal, or loss? A little bit every day.
If you can do that, you can find your way forward a step at a time. You can heal. You can hope.