One Small Step

I’m reading a wonderful book at the moment, which is really giving me pause for thought. “One Small Step Can Change Your Life” by Dr. Robert Maurer puts forward the idea, based on the ancient Japanese principle of kaizen, that we can achieve much more by taking tiny incremental steps than by waking up one morning and deciding to make huge changes. Maurer explains that when we decide to make a huge change in our life we often become afraid, which can trigger the “fight or flight” response in the amygdala, and then this slows down or even stops rational or creative thinking.

“The real problem with the amygdala… is that it sets off alarm bells whenever we want to make a departure from our usual, safe routines. The brain is designed so that any new challenge or opportunity or desire triggers some degree of fear. Whether the challenge is a new job or just meeting a new person, the amygdala alerts parts of the body to prepare for action– and our access to the cortex, the thinking part of the brain is restricted, and sometimes shuts down.” (pp 24-25)

Sound familiar? Has your brain ever gone blank, faced with a new or unusual challenge? Have you found yourself sabotaging your own best efforts to lose weight/ start dating/develop a new practice regime? How long have your New Year’s resolutions lasted, on average? I certainly resonated with his hypothesis.

It’s just so tempting to come up with a bold and brilliant new plan- something really innovatory! This tiny step business doesn’t sounds very exciting, does it, in comparison? And yet… what if it really could work? A bit like the old story of the tortoise and the hare…

Maurer suggests that by breaking down our plan into extremely manageable steps, we can tiptoe past the amygdala, circumvent the anxiety and subsequent panic or inertia, and achieve far more in the long run.

Fro example. I know someone at the moment who is trying to lose twenty pounds. After many attempts to diet dramatically, she has finally come up with a healthy and reasonable plan whereby she loses a pound a month. Doesn’t sounds like much, I know, but if the end result is to reach her goal without a rebound effect, then I call that a huge success.

How could you apply this to your own challenges? Well, to take a leaf from Maurer’s book, the first step is to begin to ask yourself small questions (apparently, the brain likes these a lot better).

If, for example, you would like to increase your practice time from two to four hours a day, what would be one small step you could take in that direction today?
Repeatedly asking a small question puts the brain into creative mode and you can begin to generate a whole raft of possibilities.

For example:
I could practice for two hours and one minute today, and increase by one minute every day.
I could break down my practice into smaller increments, for example, twenty minute segments, and make one of them twenty -five instead.
I could ask myself, what is the purpose of my practice today. If it’s for an upcoming concert, would I be willing to spend ten extra minutes each day on the most demanding/rewarding area of a piece, knowing how much more secure I would feel on the day.
I could ask a friend/colleague how they would go about practicing a certain element of a piece and spend ten minutes trying it a different way.
I could practice one section of a piece as many different ways as possible for thirty minutes and record myself. Carefully listening to the recording would count as practice time. And so on, and so on.

Maurer cites many examples of success throughout his book, both for individuals and for corporations who put this principle into action, and there are many other useful principles and tips. I’ve recently started applying this method to my own life with tangible results already, and am excited about working this way with my clients. Go, tortoise!