For the longest time, January has been for me the “What am I going to do with my life?” month of the year.
During my teenage years and early twenties, I had some common and natural questions regarding the way I was going to build my future. They included everything in my life, from career to family, staying healthy etc.
As we grow older and reach or change some of our goals, our questions can become more targeted. Still, as we go through life’s twists and turns, we sometimes find ourselves back to square one.
“What am I going to do with my life?”
“How will I find a fulfilling career?”
“How am I going to lose 30 pounds?”
Such big, scary questions.
And while setting objectives in January can be exciting, we sometimes feel relieved when time passes by, the big questions and objectives (sometimes even the overly ambitious SMART ones) fade away and we continue living by going with the flow.
I’ve recently stumbled upon an interesting book called “One Small Step Can Change Your Life:
The Kaizen Way”, by Dr. Robert Maurer, a clinical psychologist, and professor at UCLA. You might have heard of the Kaizen method in a business context. I first got familiar with it in college, while I was studying Quality Management, and now I’m learning to look at it in a new light.
Kaizen is a Japanese term that means “good change” or “improvement”. In business, it translates as the practice of continuous improvement based on small and constant changes. Applying the kaizen principles contributed to turning around Japan’s economy after WWII.
But what Dr. Maurer covers in his book is how the kaizen method can be applied as a personal development tool. How it can help us reach our goals and almost effortlessly cultivate good habits.
[tweetthis]Stay focused, go after your dreams and keep moving toward your #goals ~LL Cool J #quote[/tweetthis]
Why are big questions overwhelming?
Here comes the best part: there’s a fun scientific explanation behind this.
From an evolutionary perspective, our brain is structured in three parts:
- The reptilian brain – the oldest, which controls the body’s vital functions, like breathing and body temperature.
- The limbic brain – which developed in the first mammals and is in charge of our emotions and memory
- The cortex – on which we rely for learning, logical thinking, decision making, understanding abstract concepts, creativity
Within the limbic brain, we have a structure called amygdala, which is responsible for the flight or fight response.
The flight of fight response is a mechanism that helps our bodies react fast in the face of danger and the one that kept us alive for millions of years while we were trying to survive among natural predators.
You’re probably experiencing it on a regular basis, each time you see a car approaching fast, hear a loud noise or see an object thrown in your direction. It helps you act first and think later.
The fascinating thing about the way the amygdala works is that it doesn’t react only to physical threats, it also triggers the flight or fight response when we face various challenges. Think about the anxiety you experience when you’re taking an important test or talking in front of a group of people.
That’s what happens when we challenge ourselves with big questions – the amygdala triggers the fear and restricts the parts of the brain that aren’t essential for immediate survival, which include the thinking part of the brain, problem-solving and creativity.
In a few words, it leaves us afraid and unequipped to find the answers we need to take action.
How do small questions work?
The beauty of small, positive questions is that by being non-threatening, they don’t trigger the flight or fight response.
Questions are engaging, thought-provoking and our brain loves them.
The secret is to keep asking yourself the same question until your brain starts working on an answer.
“If you repeat the question over the course of several days or weeks – or for however long it takes- the hippocampus (the part of the brain that stores information) will have no choice but to address it. And in its own way, on its own timetable, the brain will begin giving you answers.” – Dr. Robert Maurer
Those ingenious ideas that you sometimes get while you are taking a shower or while you are cooking dinner might be the result of this very process.
Examples of small questions
Let’s say that you are trying to lose weight. You know that you should get more exercise and/or change your diet, but you are not prepared to make a big, sudden lifestyle change.
A small question you can ask yourself might be:
“What is the smallest positive change I could make in my diet?” or
“How can I introduce 3 minutes of exercise during a regular workday?”
[tweetthis]Review your #goals twice every day in order to be focused on achieving them. ~Les Brown #quote[/tweetthis]
What’s the next step?
The next step after you’ve answered your small question is to take a small action.
For example, in case you decide that it would feel effortless to take a 3 minutes walk during your lunch break, start by doing that. After this walk is part of your comfortable daily routine, ask yourself another small question and take another small action.
The trick is that each step should feel effortless and this way your brain will bypass the anxiety generated by change and start setting the ground for new, positive, and long-lasting habits.
If you feel that a step you decided to take is overwhelming and you find yourself trying to avoid it, rethink it and make it even smaller.
Over to you
In my case, one of the small steps I took this year was to get an activity tracker. Because having a baby makes joining a gym difficult, I decided that I will just use it to be more aware of my level of activity during the day and to introduce a little bit of exercise whenever I get the chance.
A few years ago, I used to jump right into big changes and never look back. For example, after a period of inactivity, I would just join a gym and start attending classes. At that point, it worked and I used to stick with it. That’s also because I had no extra responsibilities and I could modify my schedule without consequences.
What is your philosophy when it comes to achieving your goals?
Do you prefer making big changes, or do small consistent steps suit your lifestyle better?