Breaking Bad Habits the Kaizen Way

I wonder if she dreams of giving up her pipe habit....

It can be said there are two main strategies for breaking bad habits or forming new ones. The first one is fast, flashy and radical. It’s also vastly more popular than it’s unpretentious step-sister: the strategy of making small improvements.

Robert Maurer, author of the  book One Small Step Can Change Your Life, describes the first strategy – which he calls innovation – like this:

..innovation is a drastic process of change. Ideally, it 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.

I bet that sounds familiar to you.

I cringe when I  think how many times I’ve sworn to make a radical change in my life.  My past is littered with failed attempts at losing weight, becoming a regular exerciser, starting new hobbies or becoming more productive (well, I did become a regular exerciser but that’s beside the point). What usually happens is that after going strong for a couple of weeks or several months, my momentum peters out and I’m back to where I started or worse.

The worst consequence of my too-numerous-to-mention failed attempts is that I feel like a failure.  I hesitate to start any new improvements projects, because I don’t want to botch them up too.

Of course there have been times I’ve managed to break some bad habit “cold turkey”, but my failures vastly outnumber my successes.


But let’s get back to the alternative strategy of breaking bad habits – or forming new ones: making small improvements.

In management consulting, the alternative strategy is called ‘Kaizen’,  and it means small steps for continual improvement. The Kaizen technique actually originated in the US,  migrated to Japan and took root there. In this case, I’m  more interested in Kaizen as a technique for creating personal change.

To be successful with Kaizen requires that you understand and accept the fact that the changes you’re going to make are very small, even ridiculously small. For example, someone wanting to start an exercise habit could begin marching in front of television for one minute every night. On the second week she could increase the time to two minutes, and so on.

That was the exact advice Robert Maurer gave to Julie, a busy, overweight single mom who was in a risk group for diabetes. Instead of lecturing Julie about the importance of starting a rigorous exercise regimen, Maurer suggested that she could start pacing in front of the television for one minute every night. Julie agreed, and in a few months time she had transformed from a couch potato to a regular exerciser.

I think that would’ve been a very unlikely result if she had received the standard advice.

Robert Maurer believes there are two reasons why Kaizen technique is so effective. First, it bypasses our inner resistance or fear of change, and second,  it gently prepares our brains for bigger changes by laying down neural circuits for new habits.

If you start by taking tiny Kaizen steps, you may discover you’ve changed your habit with almost no conscious effort.

Breaking bad habits the Kaizen way – my experiment

Naturally, I’ve set up my own experiment with Kaizen. My goal is to get rid of one very long-term bad habit of mine.

I have this nervous habit of scratching the skin of my thumbs with the nails of my forefingers. I guess my habit is some kind of variant of nail-biting, except I have never been a nail biter. Because I’m a high-strung person,  my left and right thumbs often look like they have been gnawed by little animals. Sometimes it gets so bad I draw blood and have to bundle my thumbs with band aid.

I’ve been doing this more than 25 years, so let’s just say that I’d be thrilled if I got rid of the habit. I could stop hiding my hands and even use some nail polish from time to time.

My tiny Kaizen step is this: once a day, I’m to catch myself scratching the skin of my thumbs and stop myself from doing it. That’s all. Next week I’m probably going to up it to three times a day.

My experiment has been a success so far (I started a couple of days ago), as I’ve easily caught myself scratching at least once a day.  🙂 I’m eager to find out what happens in the long run.

There are other things I want to apply the Kaizen technique for, but I have to figure up suitably small steps for them first.


Have you ever tried breaking bad habits or forming new ones in very small steps? How did it go?


  1. Jill says:

    This is very good Satu. I do this to help me overcome my anxiety. Teeny tiny baby steps, and staying consistent is the only thing that ever worked for me. It’s also how I learned to eat healthy. Taking one big changes all at once always lead me to failure. Inch by inch, it’s a cinch!

    • Satu says:

      Hi Jill!

      When I was writing this post I was actually reminded of a tv program that showed how people we taught to get rid of their phobias. They used very small steps too, but it wasn’t called Kaizen of course.

      What I love about Kaizen is that the steps are so small and easy you’re practically guaranteed to succeed.

  2. I’ve never thought about this before Satu, but I like the idea. As you know I’m trying to make some changes in my life. I usually go with the first option – BIG changes in one fell swoop. But… I usually fail. Or if I succeed, it’s only for a little bit of time before I revert back to old habits.

    I’ve got a partly written post about a 30 day change process I saw on a blog post (cannot recall which one – eek!) which I liked the sound of. I’m thinking of trying it for June.

    I’m keen to know how your experiment goes. I like the idea of ‘small sustainable changes’.


    • Satu says:

      I’m glad I’m not alone in the “try and fail” boat. 🙂 Trying to break away my bad habit the Kaizen way has been pretty easy so far and I’ve drastically reduced my scratching. The skin on my thumbs is healing already. Let’s hope it lasts!

  3. Aimee says:

    Slow is the way to go! I used to try to go all out with my weight loss goals usually beginning on a Monday and involving some drastic reduction of food and an excess of exercise. That generally lasted a few hours. I truly believe that small changes eventually add up to big sustainable changes. When I began running I would run the long sides of a track and walk the short sides. I did it once around. Soon once became twice and progressed from there. Before I knew it was running the entire way around. In time I could run a mile. The more I did the more I was driven to do. I took it slow and only progressed as I felt comfortable. I knew that I wouldn’t stick with it if I didn’t love it. I love running long distances now, but the process took a few years.

    • Satu says:

      I love how you applied small steps in running, Aimee! 🙂 My own fitness journey has also lasted a few years and it’s far from “finished”,

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