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Nancy Okerlund
Volume 4, Issue 4, 04/29/10

The Introvert with the Kitchen Timer

For some time now I've been interested in a technique called kaizen. It's a Japanese word. It means something like "small steps for continual improvement."

Most people I mention it to, if they've heard of kaizen at all, know about it as something connected with the business world. And it's true - the strategy of many small steps (rather than big radical innovation) developed in U.S. manufacturing during World War II, out of necessity.

And it gets credit for a big increase in America's manufacturing capacity during that time. (Evidently considered not a small factor in the Allied victory.)

After the war it was introduced to Japan, as American forces helped Japan start rebuilding. The Japanese business world was receptive, began using it very successfully, and eventually gave it the name "kaizen".

In the meantime, once the war was over, this strategy of making small changes was ignored in America. It wasn't until the 80's that it began to come back into the U.S. business world.

But back to me and kaizen. Many years ago an American psychologist named Robert Maurer starting applying kaizen to the personal level. A few years ago he published a book: One Small Step Can Change Your Life - The Kaizen Way. I've been working with it.

I love how creative human beings are. Now, with so much new brain research, we've discovered that this kaizen technique - tiny steps in a direction you want to go - works so well because it keeps us out of the amygdala, the part of the brain that triggers fear.

Here's a quote from Maurer: "Small, easily achievable goals - such as picking up and storing just one paper clip on a chronically messy desk - let you tiptoe right past the amygdala, keeping it asleep and unable to set off alarm bells. As your small steps continue and your cortex starts working, the brain begins to create 'software' for your desired change, actually laying down new neural pathways and building new habits."

Maurer's book (appropriately small :-) teaches how to apply kaizen by using small questions, small thoughts, small actions, small problems, small rewards, and small moments - to create not-small changes in your life.

The not-small issue I'm experimenting with is my tendency to dive deep into things. I've written about it before. On the one hand, it's satisfying. I don't worry about getting bored because virtually anything I'm interested in can be explored endlessly.

At one time I probably unconsciously considered it part of what was wrong with me - automatically tending to linger on things, ask a lot of questions, want to know more, think about my experiences intently. Usually it seemed there wasn't enough time and my pace wasn't fast enough.

Now, so much more a "conscious introvert", I get that it's normal for me. On a continuum, extroverts tend toward the breadth end, introverts like depth. Introvert brains love to concentrate, we gravitate toward thorough.

The extroverts in the group might like to see as many animals at the zoo as they can. Me, I'd rather park myself by the river otters. (But there aren't any chairs :-).

Even if it's normal, this is no small issue for me. The minute I focus on something, I start feeling that depth tendency. And maybe I have an unusually serious case of depth-itis. But we live in a world that's generally more into breadth than depth. So it still often feels like there isn't enough time and my pace isn't fast enough.

It's both a starting and stopping challenge. I can be afraid to start something because when you jump off the deep end, there you are in the deep end: wanting to think about something for a few hours instead of a few minutes. Same with conversations, if they're about something I'm interested in. And if one article on cooking a turkey is good, three or four is better.

Then, once I've made the dive, how to stop? How to get back up to the surface? What if I forget to buy the turkey because I'm still studying the pros and cons of brining it?

Kaizen to the rescue! Or probably sort-of kaizen. I'm still too much of a rookie to be a good judge. And if moving one paper clip is kaizen, I may be expecting too much from my amygdala. But here's how it goes:

When I'm putting off starting something, I get out the kitchen timer and set it for 10 or even 20 minutes. (This is not a brilliant new idea that came to me. For a long time I've known about the strategy of deciding to do something for just a few minutes as a way to break through being paralyzed.)

The deal I make is to focus on the activity until the timer rings - without thinking about what happens next. When it rings, sometimes I just know I want to continue - I'm on a roll and I reset the timer.

If I don't know, I take a few solid breaths and ask myself a question, probably a bona fide (that is, small) kaizen question: do I want to keep going? If the answer is no, I respect it and stop.

Managing depth-itis will no doubt continue to be one of my jobs. And I'm hanging onto all my turkey information. But thanks to the little timer, I notice starting and stopping doesn't have to be quite such a big deal after all.

End of food for thought, onto a practical idea:

A Practical Idea for Introverts and Extroverts

Check out One Small Step Can Change Your Life - The Kaizen Way, by Robert Maurer, PhD. If you already know kaizen, design yourself a new (small :-) kaizen project.

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