6 small steps to improve your writing

The Japanese concept of kaizen—improvement through gradual progression—can make a significant difference in your writing.

Have you promised yourself to stop smoking, start exercising, or begin eating more healthfully? All great resolutions, but before you get all charged up, let me give you one important tip.

Start small.

Some years ago I received a short book from a dear friend. It’s called “One Small Step Can Change your Life,” and it’s written by Robert Maurer, a professor at the UCLA School of Medicine. I try to reread this book every year, because it carries such an encouraging message. And what lessons it offers!

Subtitled “The Kaizen Way,” the book presents the Japanese technique of achieving great and lasting success through small, steady steps. How small? Really small.

For example, a single mother who was depressed, exhausted, and 30 pounds overweight was instructed to lose weight by marching for one minute while she watched TV each night. One minute!

The woman became so enthusiastic about her success in achieving this modest goal she asked for more exercise. Maurer and his colleague then helped her build the exercise habit, minute by minute. Within a few months, the woman’s resistance had disappeared, and she enthusiastically embraced a full aerobics workout.

Maurer says kaizen works because it:

  • Unsticks you from creative blocks;
  • Bypasses the fight-or-flight response associated with fear;
  • Creates connections between neurons so that the brain enthusiastically takes over the process of change.

So, how can this help you? Maurer offers six steps that I’ve listed here. Under each one, I’ve suggested an example that’s specific to writing.

1. Ask small questions. Ask yourself, “How will I get my big report written?” and your brain is likely to shut down. That’s because big questions cause fear to arise. Instead, ask incredibly simple questions such as: “If writing were my first priority, what would I be doing today?”

2. Think small thoughts. Spend 30 seconds every day envisioning yourself as a successful, accomplished writer. Picture sitting at your computer and seeing your fingers moving quickly across the keyboard. When you’re comfortable doing this, imagine what happens when you run out of ideas, and then see yourself successfully dealing with the problem.

3. Take small actions. Instead of vowing to write for five hours, spend five minutes writing.

4. Solve small problems. Look for small problems in your writing or writing habits. Perhaps you have a messy desk that distracts you? Maybe you answer email while you’re trying to write? Perhaps your mouse is uncomfortable? Pick one problem, and do something small to make it better.

5. Bestow small rewards. Big rewards tend to put your focus on the wrong thing—big projects. Instead, you want to focus on something small. So reward yourself for achieving a small writing commitment. For example, write for five minutes, and then reward yourself by watching a show on TV or reading a favorite blog.

6. Identify small moments. Look for what Maurer calls “hidden moments of delight” and note them to yourself. What pleases you about your writing? When does writing feel good? Look for the sense of pleasure rather than pain, and celebrate it.

I know this may all sound flaky or trivial, but there’s lots of proof that kaizen works. Toyota reduced many of its automobile flaws with the small step of adding a pull-cord that enabled workers to stop the assembly line if they saw a problem. Lance Armstrong uses “small thoughts” to improve his athletic performance.

Why don’t you make reading “One Small Step” your small task for this week?

A version of this article first appeared on The Measurement Standard.

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