New year’s goals are notoriously unsuccessful. Most of us fire out of the gate with gusto, eager and bright-eyed with our one words and our big goals.

But come February, when the skies are gray and life goes on minus the holiday merriment? It’s easy to stop caring and trying so hard.

But there’s one time I’ve found when this doesn’t happen—it’s when I add an ingredient that actually gives me some traction with goals. And it’s a little Japanese word that doesn’t even really translate well in English.

It’s kaizen.

Loosely, it means small, continuous change. It’s the idea that little changes, almost unnoticeable on their own, eventually add up to that big change you’re after. The process is typically more realistic and less painful.

Time is an easy example. Let’s say you want to build a habit of waking up an hour earlier. You can go cold turkey and rip off the bandaid, setting your alarm a full hour earlier tomorrow. You’ll probably be tired and groggy for the first few days doing this—possibly more, depending on how hard this is for you.

But eventually, if you keep this up daily, you’ll have built a new habit of waking earlier. “They” say a new habit takes a minimum of 21 consistent days before the neurological pathways in the brain take full effect. (And then longer, for it to fully solidify.)

Or, you could take those 21 days and do a little math. The first day, set your alarm three minutes earlier. That’s it. More than likely, you’ll hardly feel the difference when you wake up.

The next day, set it six minutes earlier. You might feel it a bit, but it’s nothing like a full hour. Then do nine minutes the next day, and so on, getting up three minutes earlier every day. Within 21 days, you’re now waking up 60 minutes earlier than you were three weeks ago—and chances are decent it wouldn’t have hurt nearly as much as ripping off that bandaid.

Work on consistently waking up at that hour until it’s ingrained in your body.

Kaizen isn’t for everyone. But it works for me.


Studies have shown that there’s evidence that we should put more effort into our systems than to our goals. (If you’re a coach, your goal is to win a championship. Your system is how your team practices every day.) Kaizen is doing just that, easing in to a Big Goal.

You’re building the habits necessary to keep that goal once it’s reached, while also enjoying the view and not making it needlessly painful.

A few more ways kaizen would work:

• If you want to wean yourself off something, like caffeine or sugar, you’d decrease your amount by 10 percent that first day—that’s basically a slightly smaller cup of coffee or a smaller spoonful of sweetener. But you still get to have some. Rinse and repeat until you’ve cut back 100 percent.

• If you want to read 50 books in a year, it requires time. Set aside five minutes a day for reading (or listening to an audiobook), building up to a full hour by 21 days. If you keep up an hour’s worth of daily reading, that’s logging 344 additional hours in one year. Again, “they” say an average adult reads about 300 words per minute—that’s around 4.5 hours per book. I’d say that’s reasonable to put you well ahead of your goal.

• If you want to swim a quarter-mile without getting winded, first go about one lap in your neighborhood 25-yard pool (that’s back and forth). Two days later, swim two laps. Add a lap every other day, and in less than three weeks, you’ll have built up to a quarter mile. (And kudos to you—this is harder than it sounds.)


It doesn’t have to be this literal and science-y, of course; the spirit of kaizen is that of small, continuous change. So if you’d like to keep your house cleaner on a consistent basis, you’d first start with a simple habit of, say, wiping down the bathroom counter as part of your morning routine for getting ready for the day. Then, build up to bigger habits over time.

If you’d like to know ten of your neighbors this year, you might start with a short walk after dinner every evening and see what happens over time. Who knows, you might find yourself planning a block party by summer.

If you’d like to build a habit of daily movement, you wouldn’t start with a marathon next weekend. You’d start with sliding away your office chair, and adding a box on your desktop to create a standing desk to keep you on your feet. Or you’d count your steps with one of those popular bracelets.

Add a couple sessions of intentional exercise per week, and before too long, you’re working out daily and feeling better.

For me, kaizen is the only realistic way to approach any of my goals—I’m a busy working mom, I’ve got writing deadlines—and well, I’m human and want to enjoy life, too.

If you’re feeling discouraged about your slacker self, you might want to consider kaizen. This approach isn’t for everyone, but I’ve been happy with it.

p.s. – This is also why we do quarterly goals instead of annual goals in Like Your Life.