You have big, ambitious goals and even bigger dreams. But how do you get from where you are now to making those dreams come true? The answer may surprise you: By aiming for just 1 percent improvement.

This counterintuitive insight comes from an essay AllTopStartups founder Thomas Oppong published on Medium and Quartz that's gotten lots of attention on social media lately. In it, he argues for using the practice of Kaizen, or continuous improvement, which was invented in the Depression-era U.S. and perfected at Toyota in Japan. But instead of using it only to continuously improve our workplaces or our jobs, he suggests Kaizen as a powerful approach for improving ourselves. 

Why is Kaizen so effective as a means of personal improvement? To answer that question, consider the people you know with big ambitions. If they're anything like the people I know, they take one of two approaches. One group loves to talk about the impressive things they plan to accomplish: Start a company, run a marathon, lose 50 pounds, write a book. They're long on visions of a better future but short on details about how to get from here to there.

The second group may or may not have grand visions of the future, but they do know a lot about the steps that will get them closer to where they want to go. Maybe they've decided to write one page every day, starting today. Maybe they are going to launch a small side hustle as a first step toward entrepreneurship, and--starting today--they're building a website to promote their products or services. These are people who may have big ambitions but they also have something much more important--a plan of action that will begin today and continue tomorrow and the next day, and the next, until they reach those big goals, or else change those goals based on what they learn while pursuing them. Of the two groups, they're the ones who will actually accomplish big things.

Kaizen is a perfect tool for the second approach, because it's all about the small things you do today rather than making grand plans for someday. Oppong argues for a simple, Kaizen-based approach to self-improvement: Aim for 1 percent improvement today, another 1 percent tomorrow, and so on. "Becoming 1 percent better every day is a simple, practical way to achieve big goals," he writes. "One percent seems like a small amount. Yes, it is. It's tiny. It's easy. It's doable."

It's a great concept that may need to be tweaked just a little, depending on what you're trying to improve. If you improve by 1 percent every day, that adds up to 100 percent improvement in just over three months. That will be doable for some things and less so for others. Let's say you run a mile every day and you want to work up to running two miles. One one-hundredth of a mile is just under 53 feet, so it makes perfect sense to add 53 feet to your run each day and gradually work up to the second mile, which should be well within your abilities by the time you get there. But let's say it takes you 10 minutes to run a mile, and you want to work it down to five. That may be a lot harder to achieve in 14 weeks. Or let's say you want to improve your backhand, but you play tennis only on Saturdays. It might make sense to look for 1 percent improvement every week instead of every day.

Continuous improvement will work if you do three things and stick to them. First, begin with a goal for 1 percent improvement, whatever that might mean in the process you're trying to improve. Second, decide how often you're going to work toward that goal and stick with the plan, whatever it is. You can keep your grand goal, if you have one, in the back of your mind, but don't focus on it. Focus on achieving that 1 percent improvement. Once you've solidly accomplished that, pick your next 1 percent goal and keep going.

Keep repeating this process, and you'll soon find you've accomplished major changes, whether you started out to or not. And all those people with great big dreams but very vague plans for achieving them? You'll have left them far behind.

Published on: Jun 11, 2019
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