Human Kaizen


Only so much to go around.


One of the most important aspects of kaizen is routine, about habitually executing best practices. The value of this is intuitively obvious in a factory (for both safety and quality control) and with morning routines (James Clear’s idea of Habit Stacking from the superbest selling book “Atomic Habits”), but there are limits. Doing the same thing mindlessly leads to ossification and out-dating, like The Big 3 Auto manufacturers in the US. The counter to this is mindfulness in action.

When you do something so much, it is ingrained; you are no longer utilizing your neocortex but older parts of your brain. You don’t have to consciously think about tying your shoes as an adult, you literally do it by feel and muscle memory because you’ve done it tens of thousands of times. You don’t think, you just do. Your motor cortex is in charge like an autopilot. And for things like tying a tie or washing dishes, this can be very helpful as it reduces a cognitive load to zero in these activities, letting the mind wander. But the same thing can happen when you drive a car or mow your lawn, and these obviously carry the risk of being disengaged and nonchalant. So how do we reduce the incidents of accidents in these situations from complacency?

One way is the old Zen ideal of mindfulness, of putting your attention into the task at hand and focusing on it. Notice the little things like try to find five red things then four blue items while driving, or scan while mowing as if you have kids that leave toys out and if you run over Mr. Bunny (the toy or animal), there will be a toddler meltdown of epic proportions. This increased attention and awareness that parents have (due to the constant danger and unusual situations kids create) will force you to stay a little on edge.

Another way is to change the environmental inputs frequently. If you play a wide variety of musical types (Spotify is actually good for this) the change in what is going in your ears keeps the brain more awake and by default your eyes and focus shift which makes you pay attention to your surroundings, preventing the placid performance of rote movements and reducing the potential accidents that come from “zoning out”.

A third way is to take breaks frequently. If you are driving 750 miles, obviously you aren’t stopping every half-hour, but the stop every three to four hours to stretch, walk, refuel, etc. is important for maintaining your edge on the road. Shifting gears into a different mindless task each hour is actually more productive than four hours nonstop. Not everything we do is engaging and exciting and awesome all the time, but paying a bit more attention to the world around us while we are executing will lead to better outcomes. That is one way to Human Kaizen your life.