Too small to fail.

Kaizen: Tiny actions for big results

The Japanese term, Kaizen, refers to using small steps to accomplish large goals. We may be used to building upon small successes, but Kaizen goes further. It goes into tiny actions that seem trivial and are too small to cause resistance.

Our brains are programmed to resist change. We survived as a species by being able to assign very little energy to repetitive tasks. When we introduce something new, it induces fear or stress, and the amygdala part of the brain becomes alert and goes into fight or flight mode. In this mode, it allocates the majority of our energy to reacting to the change, and restricts functions such as rational thinking.

Sometimes the change can be perceived as excitement instead of fear so it doesn’t set off amygdala alarms. It’s common to have some success starting a new habit, until the excitement wears off, and then not be able to rely on rational thinking to continue. It’s because the amygdala kicked in and transferred our energy to fight or flight mode.

So here’s the trick to not activate that automatic response… Make the changes tiny, and repetitive, until it’s so normal our brain craves it. For example, exercise for one minute a day for a week. Then add a second minute for another week. Keep adding minutes on a weekly basis until you hit the desired amount. Be careful to keep it effortless and not go too fast.

Be sure to give your brain enough repetition at each tiny stage to lay down the neural network required to make the change easy. Repetition, even for a few seconds, signals the brain to start committing cells to the new behavior. You’ll know you’re ready when you start doing the action without thinking about it.

Take action: Not sure where to start? Ask your brain, it loves questions. Just remember to keep it small, and you may need to give it processing time. Here are a few example questions… How can I remind myself daily to drink more water? What can I do today to grow my relationship with ___? Where can I find time to add more learning into my routine?

:: Inspired by Robert Maurer, Ph.D.’s book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.


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Use design-thinking to expand options

Design-thinking is a problem-solving process that’s been used globally for decades. It involves 5 steps which at their simplest can be described as: 1. Research. 2. Ideate (brainstorm). 3. Plan. 4. Prototype. 5. Iterate (tweak).

Step one is all about asking questions that lead to a full understanding and defining the right problem. Often what we set out to solve, evolves as we dive deeper. Done well, this stage will set us up for the whole process.

Then step 2, brainstorming for a large quantity of diverse options, can produce better and more innovative results. The key is to not edit ourselves at this stage. Just express ideas non-stop without blocking anything that seems too far fetched. This brainstorm can continue over several days and it’s a good idea to ask others for their ideas as well. Once we have a large quantity, consider what jumps out, brings us joy and energizes us.

Now we can narrow it down and plan some details on how to make the stand out ideas possible. Test drive a few ideas. Figure out how to experiment and get some feedback in your areas of interest. You have to actually execute part of it (prototype it), to be able to understand the details and nuances. Be continually iterative. That is, every time we hit a roadblock, tweak the direction and revise the path.

Take action: For those of us considering a shake up to our work life, here are some thoughts to get us started… What would we do if money were no issue? How could we make a positive social impact? What value can we add to the world? What countries/cities would we like to work in? What skills do we have that could make us lots of money? Are there any companies we’d like to work with? What if we started our own business? Is there an evolution to what we currently do? What kind of people do we want to work with? Can an interest or hobby bring us an income?

:: Inspired by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’ book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.


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Do what you’re good at, the passion will follow.

Do what you're good at, the passion will follow.

The phrase “Do what you love, the money will follow” has sent many people chasing unrealistic dreams and feeling lost when they don’t come true. Or worse, causing a standstill while trying to discover their true passion.

For example, maybe we love playing baseball, but there are very few of us who have the ability to actually turn that passion into a successful career, that we will get paid for. More attainably, we could build a career around our passion, such as being an umpire, baseball retailer, or work in a stadium. For some, that direction will turn out well. However, others will feel completely unfulfilled.

For many people, turning the love/money phrase around to focus on our abilities, instead of our passions, is likely to be a faster track to happiness. Finding something that we are good at, adds value to the world, and that we enjoy well enough, has a better chance of growing into something we love to do, than trying to monetize our immediate passions. As we develop our skills, we are likely to enjoy them more and more, to the point that we become passionate about them.

Yes, it’s true that we should do what we love, but the money doesn’t always follow, and our current passions may be better as a hobby instead of a job. It’s our abilities that can attract money and the key is to develop skills that are not only in demand, but that we enjoy enough to grow into a passion.

Take action: Make a list of about 20 things that you are good at, such as analytical thinking, socializing, planning, or creating. Ask people who know you to help – they may see strengths in you that you under appreciate. Then circle the ones that you would enjoy doing long term, as in you could happily do it daily, for years. Take what stands out and think about what project you could work on with these skills. Start small and grow your ability in that area. If your passion starts to follow, keep going. If you don’t like it, tweak it and try again, until you feel you’re on a good path.

:: Inspired by Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.


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Nobody is smarter than everybody.

Collective intelligence

Groupthink can be harmful, but collective intelligence can bring out the best in this world.

With the incredible amount of data now available at our fingertips, hoarding knowledge no longer holds much power. Being knowledgeable is has lost its association with being smart. In fact, if you’re not freely sharing your knowledge, it can be seen as holding society back.

There’s a great appreciation for diverse views that we can only get when people individually share their opinions. Collective intelligence comes from the consensus of these individuals, but consensus is not necessarily a majority vote, it’s about finding the best feasible solution.

The key here is to ensure that each person’s diverse view is taken into account. It can be inspired by, and build off other ideas, but must stay individual and unique.

Collective intelligence can be incredibly beneficial, but we need to be wary of its antithesis, groupthink, where a few people influence a group in such a way that instead of getting differing perspectives, we get irrational decision-making. Groupthink is often characterized by one big ego backed by the energy of many sheepish followers. Collective intelligence, on the other hand, benefits from a network of perspectives, and is known for solving the world’s biggest issues, such as eliminating disease.

Take action: Wikipedia is an excellent example of collective intelligence, but it can work on a small scale as well. Next time you need a second opinion, try getting a third, fourth or fifth opinion from people who will have different perspectives. Then make your decision based on the consensus, that is, the best workable solution for your situation.

:: Influenced by Rod Collins’ book, Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for a Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World.



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Take proper care of the goose, to get the golden eggs.

For productivity, take care of the goose to get the golden egg

Aesop’s fable is a good lesson for us. In it, a farmer has a goose that lays a golden egg each day. Over time the farmer grows rich from selling the eggs, but also becomes greedy and impatient. He decides to kill the goose and cut it open, to get to the eggs faster. Of course in doing so, he loses both the goose and the future eggs.

It’s common for us to grow greedy and impatient with our own metaphorical geese – ourselves as well as our relationships.

For example, we may go through a sprint of high production and start to expect that we can maintain that pace, without taking care of what enables us to achieve. Or, it’s not unusual for marriages to start off strong. Then gradually, as we neglect our spouse’s needs, we wonder where all the loveliness went. Perhaps we can’t understand why our child doesn’t listen to us, but we haven’t put in the effort to understand her/him over the years.

The opposite can also be a problem. If we excessively pamper ourselves, or continually put other people’s wants ahead of our own needs, there will be laziness, disharmony, or disrespect, and no golden eggs being produced.

We need a balance of both, taking care of the goose and making sure the eggs are being laid.

Take action: Are you getting what you feel you should be getting from yourself, your family, and/or people you work with? Consider if you’re taking the time to balance and nurture yourself and your relationships properly. Are you achieving your personal goals? Is your child disobedient, or your spouse ignoring you, or do your co-workers seem lazy? Instead of thinking the world is against you, take a look at your input into your goals and your relationships.

:: Inspired by Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.



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30% more productive

Quick video: Cut 2 things to be 30% more productive.

I love this productivity hack so much, I made a video to explain it. I’ve been doing it and cannot believe how much I’ve accomplished…





Are you actually, really, truly open to learning?

Education is all around us, always.

Education is all around us, always. The most successful people seek out knowledge continuously, because they are humble enough to know they don’t know it all.

Many of us have a fear of exposing what we don’t know, wanting to appear smart. But asking questions, being curious, and digging into someone else’s perspective, is how we gain personal and specific knowledge. It’s how we go beyond what we can look up on Google.

Michael Jordan, for example, may seem far from humble on the outside, but he’s been known to say that his greatest skill is being teachable. His greatness comes from listening to what people tell him, taking what he learns and putting it into action.

Another extremely successful person, Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, was constantly scoping out his competitors to find out if they knew something he didn’t. Instead of thinking he knew the best approach already, he learned as much as he could and then experimented with it.

This openness sounds easy enough, but when someone less experienced than us gives us instruction, do we get defensive? How about someone with different political or religious views? We can only truly argue for our own beliefs when we fully understand the opposing view.

However, it’s also important to learn from the right people, figure out who has been successful by putting their knowledge into action, and be a sponge with them. Be careful of those that just talk without experience.

Take action: What’s your learning score? Out of 10, how much effort do you put into learning from books? And, spend time with mentors? Learn from your competitors? Attend seminars? How much money do you put into learning? Feel free to add other approaches. The average of these ratings is your learning score. Can you improve it in the next 3 months?

:: Inspired by Tai Lopez’s 67 Steps. (Yes, he’s that annoying guy with the Lambo’s, but like this tip says, if we stay open, we can learn a great deal.)



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Gratitude is extremely powerful.

Gratitude is extremely powerful.

It’s common to overlook the importance of a heartfelt “thank you.” Even though we like being on the receiving end of gratitude, we often forget how important it is to give it to others. This tip is not only a reminder to give thanks to people around us, but to also take daily moments to appreciate ourselves, and our accomplishments so far.

Ever have trouble falling asleep at night because you’re focused on how things could be better? Bedtime is a great moment to switch our thinking to gratitude for something we achieved that day, even if it’s a small thing. These thankful thoughts will calm our minds and put us in a pleasant state, while setting up our subconscious to move towards positivity.

One caveat, this attitude should not imply that we should lower our standards and just be thankful for what we have. Gratitude is not about settling for less than we’re capable of. In fact, acknowledging things we’ve done well can actually get the ball rolling to do more things well.

Some great things to reflect on are: small accomplishments you’ve performed through the day; or a good state of mind you achieved during a less than ideal situation; a connection you made with another person that helps grow your relationship; or something you learned or realized that will enhance your life.

Gratitude can make a very significant change in our life. It helps us focus on the good stuff. If we have a positive state of mind, we have a better ability to make solid decisions, which lead to beneficial outcomes, and then make it easier to focus on the good stuff again. It’s like an upward spiral.

Take action: Having a gratitude jar is a great way to remind yourself of what to be thankful for. Step 1: Reflect on a moment, and pull out something about it that you are thankful for. It doesn’t have to be a good moment, in fact a good challenge is to pull gratitude from a difficult situation. Step 2: Write the appreciation on a piece of paper and pop it in a jar. Repeat this regularly and review the contents of the jar frequently. And don’t forget to express this gratitude to others involved.

:: Inspired by Kristin Wong’s Lifehacker article, Why Gratitude Makes You a Happier Person.



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To be truly great at something, we need grit.

Elite tennis player who have grit: Basic (left) vs Djokovic

Grit, or perseverance, is not the only factor for greatness in one area, but success doesn’t “just” happen. We have to make it happen, one small step at a time, with years of dedication.

We may compare ourselves and think that others are just naturally talented, or were given numerous good breaks, or were born super smart. We don’t see the effort they’ve put in, the failures they’ve learned from, and the insecurities they’ve endured on their road to greatness.

If we decide we want that level of success, how do we know what to be gritty about? Psychologist Angela Duckworth says we should look at an intersection of three things

  1. Our interests. Generally, what we liked to do when we were about 12-13 years old, when we were gaining our own way of thinking.
  2. We need to have purpose. What we do needs to be meaningful for us to stick with it.
  3. Reality. Not everything we want to do has opportunity, and persevering in the wrong area can be gut wrenching.

Even when we have these three elements, grit still does not supply a direct line to greatness, nor offer any guarantees. But, we can only get there if we keep taking steps toward it. If we do find a passion that has meaning and is realistic, it may be worth persevering.

Take action: If you find the thing you want to be great at, consider what level of greatness will fit the lifestyle you want. That will give you a better idea of how much grit you’ll need. That is, how many hours per day and for how many years.

:: Inspired by Angela Duckworth’s Talks at Google, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.



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Control our thoughts by designing what we think.

Design our thoughts.

We’re the only one who can truly control our thoughts so it makes sense to put some planning into how we want to think.

Want to think more positively? Or maybe be more present in the moment? Or how about a stronger appreciation for what we have? It’s important to first know what we want our thoughts to be and why, then we’ll have a goal to focus on.

Next, make a plan for how we’ll achieve it. For some, meditation will work. For others it will be a matter of consciously checking in with our thoughts at scheduled times of the day, or a small reward for when we find ourselves thinking in line with our goal.

We may need someone close to us to help monitor our actions, body language and words, since those things are telling signs of what’s happening in our mind.

Who we are, stems from our thoughts – our thoughts lead to actions, which can form habits, and evolve into who we become – so it’s more than worthwhile to put some effort into designing what we think.

Take action: At various times through today, note what kind of personal thoughts you have, write them down and before you go to sleep, review what thoughts you like, and those you want to change. Then figure out what you want to change them to, and why.

:: This SmartLife tip is inspired by Carrie Green’s TEDx Talk: Programming Your Mind for Success.



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Make online interactions more meaningful.

The internet: Time water or tool for good?

We live in a time where we can connect with millions of people and make a positive impact. Yet, many of us spend a great deal of our online moments watching cat videos or judging other people’s lives. We can do better.

Since the internet never forgets, there’s a lot of pressure to be exceptional when we post a meaningful comment, story, or video. This fear of judgement can stop us from starting. But, if we never start, we’ll never become good at it, and we’ll deny people of the impact we could make in their lives.

We all have meaningful thoughts that we can contribute to the world. Sure, at first our ideas may not get the same number of likes as cat videos. There’s no need to compete for likes. Even if no one reads our post, it still starts our habit of sharing meaningful thoughts.

Let go of the desire to be perfect and the fear of judgement. If we can say interesting things, as we all do many times a day, then we can post interesting things. Our thoughts are fascinating, and we can learn to recognize their contributions the more we write and share them. If we do it for ourselves, we’ll get better at it. Then others will eventually follow and be impacted by what we share.

What is meaningful for us, will resonate with someone else, and can help people struggling in similar situations. Cat videos are fun, but it’s time to also contribute more meaning.

Take action: If you’re worried about being judged for your ideas, you can start a blog or social account under an alias until you’ve crafted your contributory skills. Don’t let fear stop you from sharing meaningful thoughts. Your ideas can make a positive impact.

:: Inspired by Marie Forleo’s interview with Seth Godin.



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