By taking steps so tiny they seem laughable, you may very well achieve the seemingly impossible!

This post is an excerpt from one of my favourite books of all time. I’ve used these techniques on myself and clients with extraordinary success. I think you’ll find this read to be most thought-provoking.


By taking steps so tiny that they seem trivial or even laughable, you’ll sail calmly past obstacles that have defeated you before. Slowly – but painlessly! – you’ll cultivate an appetite for continued success and lay down a permanent new route to change.

One Small Step ~ Dr. Robert Maurer

Most psychology and medicine are devoted to studying why people get sick or don’t function well in life. But throughout my career as a psychologist, I’ve always been intrigued by the opposite of failure. When a dieter loses ten pounds and keeps it off, I want to know why.

I want to understand the human decisions behind success. And so there have been two questions that have occupied my professional life:

  • How do people succeed?

  • How do successful people stay successful?

Of course, there are as many ways to achieve success as there are successful people.  But over the course of twenty-two years in practice, I’ve had the satisfaction of watching countless clients use an unusual method to create lasting change. They’ve applied the same principles to improve their lives in just about every way. They’ve lost weight (and kept it off); begun an exercise program (and stuck with it); kicked addictions (for good); created strong relationships (the kind that last); become organized (without sliding when things get hectic); and improved careers (and continued to do so, long after their performance reports are filed).

If you’d like to make a change – one that sticks – I hope you’ll read on. This method is something of an open secret, one that’s circulated among Japanese businesses for decades and is used daily by private citizens across the globe. It is a natural, graceful technique for achieving goals and maintaining excellence. It can slip into even the tightest of schedules. And in this book, I’ll share this strategy with you.

But first I want you to meet Julie.

Julie sat in the examining room, her eyes cast downward. She had come to UCLA’s medical center for help with high blood pressure and fatigue, but the family practice resident and I could see that much more was going on. Julie was a divorced mother of two, by her own admission a little depressed and more than a little overwhelmed. Her support system was shaky at best, and she was just barely holding on to her job.

The young doctor and I were concerned about Julie’s long-term health. Her weight (she was carrying more than thirty extra pounds) and soaring stress level put her at increased risk for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and deeper depression. It was clear that if Julie did not make some changes, she was headed down a spiral of disease and despair.

We knew a cheap, proven way to help Julie, and it wasn’t a bottle of pills or years in psychotherapy. If you read the papers or watch the news, you can probably guess what I’m talking about: exercise. Regular physical exercise activity could improve nearly all of Julie’s health problems, give her more stamina to sustain her through her gruelling days, and boost her spirits.

Once, I might have offered this free and effective treatment with all the zeal of a new convert. Go jogging! Ride a bike! Rent an aerobics video! I might have said. Give up your lunch break, wake up an hour earlier if you have to, but just get up and make that commitment to your health five times a week! But when I looked at the dark circles under Julie’s eyes, my heart sank. We’d probably told hundreds of patients to exercise, but very few of them made it a regular habit. They found it too time-consuming, too sweaty, too much effort. I believe that most of them were also afraid of breaking out of their comfortable ruts, although not all of the patients were aware of this fear.

And here sat Julie, who worked almost constantly just to keep her kids housed and clean and fed. Her only solace was relaxing for a half-hour or so on the couch most evenings. I could predict what would happen: The doctor would tell her to exercise, Julie would feel both misunderstood (“How am I going to find time to work out? You don’t understand me at all!”) and guilty. The resident physician would feel frustrated to see her advice ignored one more time – and possibly start to become cynical, as so many hopeful young doctors eventually do.

What could I do to break this sad cycle?

Charging Uphill: INNOVATION

When people want to change, they usually turn first to the strategy of innovation.

According to this definition, 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.

If Julie wanted to apply innovation to her weight problem, she might have embarked on the kind of rigorous exercise program I mentioned. This program would require serious life changes. She would need to get her heart rate up for at least half an hour, five days a week. She’d have to find the discipline to rearrange her schedule, cope with some serious initial muscle soreness, perhaps budget for some new clothes or shoes and – most of all – she’d have to commit to her new program through those tough first weeks or months.

Other examples of innovation for personal change include

  • Diets that ask you to cut out all of your favourite foods at once

  • Quitting and addiction “cold turkey”

  • Austerity plans for getting out of personal debt

  • Jumping into risky social situations to conquer shyness

I applaud innovation as a way to make changes … when it works. Turning our lives around on a dime can be a source of confidence and self-respect. But I have observed that many people are crippled by the belief that innovation is the only way to change. We ignore a problem or challenge for as long as possible, and then, when we are forced by circumstances or duress, we attempt to make a large leap toward improvement. If the big leap lands us on greener territory, we congratulate ourselves, and rightly so. But if we slip and fall, the resulting pain and embarrassment can be devastating.

That’s the problem with innovation. Too often, you meet with success in the short term, only to find yourself falling back into your old ways when your initial burst of enthusiasm fades away.

There is an alternative to innovation. It is another path altogether, one that winds so gently up the hill that you hardly notice the climb. It is pleasant to negotiate and soft to tread. And all it requires is that you place one foot in front of the other.

Welcome to Kaizen

Kaizen is captured in this familiar but powerful saying:

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.”  ~ Lao Tzu

During American preparations for WWII, when they were short of management and innovation, they turned to the philosophy of kaizen. Instead of encouraging radical, more innovative change to produce the demanded results, the Training Within Industries (TWI) course exhorted managers toward what it called “continuous improvement.” The course manual urged supervisors to “look for hundreds of small things you can improve. Don’t try to plan a whole new department layout – or go after a big new installation of new equipment. There isn’t time for these major items. Look for improvements on existing jobs with your present equipment.

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts. “

~ John Wooden, the most successful coach in the history of college basketball

Kaizen Versus Innovation

Kaizen and Innovation are the two major strategies people use to create change. Where innovation demands shocking and radical reform, all kaizen asks is that you take small, comfortable steps toward improvement.

I’ve had plenty of opportunities to witness people who need to change their lives – to kick a bad habit, ease their loneliness, or break out of an unsatisfying career. When I assist corporations, helping business executives grapple with tough situations is practically my job description. Over and over, I’ve seen people bravely attempt to implement revolutionary schemes for improvement. Some succeeded, most did not.

Small Steps, Giant Leaps

Julie struck me as the perfect candidate for change in its smallest, least threatening form. I looked on as Julie waited to hear what the resident had to say. As I predicted, the resident talked to Julie about the importance of taking time for herself and getting some exercise. Just as she was about to tell Julie to spend at least thirty minutes of most days on aerobically challenging exercise – a recommendation that would have likely been with disbelief and anger – I found myself jumping in.

“How about if you just march in place in front of the television, each day, for one minute?”

The resident shot me an incredulous look.

But Julie brightened a little. She said, “I could give that a try.”

When Julie returned for a follow-up visit, she reported that she’d indeed marched in front of the TV set for one minute each night. Granted, she wasn’t going to get much healthier with just sixty seconds of low-intensity exercise. But during this second visit, I noticed that Julie’s attitude had changed. Instead of coming back discouraged, as so many failed exercisers do, Julie was more animated, with less resistance in her speech and demeanour.

            “What else can I do in one minute a day?” she wanted to know.

I was thrilled. A small success, yes, but much better than the all-around discouragement I’d seen so many times. We began to guide Julie slowly toward a healthier life, building up the exercise habit minute by minute. Within a few months, Julie found that her resistance to a more complete fitness program had dissolved. She was now eager to take on full aerobic workouts – which she performed regularly and enthusiastically! At the same time, I introduced little kaizen steps to other patients at the medical center, to clients in my psychology practice, and to the corporations that hired me as a consultant.

And I’m talking about really small steps here, ones that seemed almost embarrassingly trivial at first. Instead of encouraging clients to leave unsatisfying careers, I might have them spend a few seconds each day imagining the details of a dream job.

This personal application of kaizen transformed its nature. Businesses and factories tend to let small steps for improvement accumulate into a larger change. But the psychology of the individual is a little different. In fact, a surprising number of my clients intuitively perceive what it took me years of observation to see:

Low-key change helps the human mind circumnavigate the fear that blocks success and creativity.

Often, people find that their minds develop a desire for this new behaviour, whether it is regular exercise (as in Julie’s case), a diet, cleaning off their desks, or spending time with a loving, supportive companion instead of a destructive one.

Eventually, my clients are startled to discover that they have reached their goals with no additional conscious effort on their part. How does this happen? I believe that the kaizen approach is a highly effective method of building new neural connections in the brain, an idea I’ll address in more detail in the coming chapter.

As one client said to me, “The steps were so small I couldn’t fail!”

Because the vast majority of people want to improve their health, relationships, or careers, this book devotes much of its space to these topics. But the principles I outline here can apply to any project for change, whether the goal is ending a nail-biting habit or learning to say no to the empty demands that suck up your time.

Through decades of working with people of all stripes, with unique strengths and needs, I’ve developed a theory about why kaizen works when all else fails. I outline this theory in the first chapter. The succeeding chapters are devoted to the personal application of kaizen and encompass six different strategies. These strategies include:

  • Asking small questions to dispel fear and inspire creativity

  • Thinking small thoughts to develop new skills and habits – without moving a muscle

  • Taking small actions that guarantee success

  • Solving small problems, even when you’re faced with an overwhelming crisis

  • Bestowing small rewards to yourself or others to produce the best results

  • Recognizing the small but critical moments that everyone else ignores

Just remember: While the steps may be small, what we’re reaching for is not.

To commit your life to honour and maintaining your physical health; to the passion, the risk, and the excellence of a demanding career; to the pursuit of a rewarding relationship with another human being; or to the continual upward revision of your personal standards, is to strive for powerful goals, often elusive and at times frightening. But for now, all you need to do is take one small step.

That’s why this is one of my favourite books of all time. As always, thanks for being here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *