What the Japanese can teach you about writing

teach you about writing

Word count: 740 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Do you tend to set big fat writing goals for yourself? Today’s column describes what the Japanese can teach you about writing….

My family and I are moving house at the beginning of March. We’re renovating our home and have to park ourselves elsewhere for full year. It’s a mega-stressful undertaking — made somewhat easier because we’ve found a house to rent in the very next block.

As you can imagine, I’ve been spending all my spare time thinning stuff. We wore our shredder to oblivion getting rid of old financial documents and we gave away 18 boxes of books last weekend. But I’ve also discovered a few treasures.

One is the short book One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Robert Maurer a professor at the UCLA school of medicine. I’m embarrassed to admit I received the book as a gift from a friend many years ago — and the teeny tiny volume somehow buried itself in the stacks of clutter in my office. It emerged from hibernation last week and I read it for the first time. What a winner! And what lessons this book 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 lbs 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 new connections between neurons so that the brain enthusiastically takes over the process of change.

So, how can this help you? Maurer offers six steps which I’ve listed here. And under each one, I’ve suggested a “how to” example that’s specific to writing.

1) Ask small questions. Ask yourself, “how will I get my book 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 imagining 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 favourite 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 flakey 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 allowing 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?

Posted February 17th, 2009 in Power Writing

  • Charli Mills

    Love it! You never cease to have useful tips for writers, Daphne. Thanks.

  • Ksenia Carvalho

    Thank you very much for this post! I’ll start tomorrow morning with a five-minute writing and will try to do it everyday)

  • Chavi

    Reminds me of BJ Fogg’s “tiny habits” (google it for a free interactive kickstart.) THanks!

  • Jaz

    Lance Armstrong used large amounts of drugs to improve his athletic performance. He was at best a ‘slightly above average pro-level cyclist’.

    • Interesting point, Jaz, but I’m not sure how you mean it to relate to writing?

  • Nuclearmind

    Since I first read the above post of yours twenty minutes ago., I have initiated three projects composed of twenty volumes each. One will detail the game changing discovery of sugar-free iced latte, The other two will follow the journeys of two of the great American dictators of the twentieth century, including, but not limited to, J. Edgar Hoover….? Ha! You thought I was about to reveal what in all likelihood your readers will want to steal from my fertile creative mind.This will not happen today. No, this will not happen today.Go ahead and cry if you must. I confess, I have stumbled upon an insurmountable obstacle by following your advice. I cannot seem to find my pen and paper under all the ideas you stimulate in me. Therefore, I am not going to do a thing. Tonight for instance, I shall go see another pointless Hollywood film, and then go Bowling followed by four shots of Cuervo Gold Tequila followed by several line dances down at the Twist & Shout until I fall down and twist and shout. Thank you.

  • Cecile Conoly

    Thank you for this information. I ‘ve been following an apprenticeship with a french gentleman who advises his students to use the “Kaizen” method as we develop the habit of speaking french naturally,automatically , and without hesitations. It has been very effective for me in this capacity. I find it to be helpful in creating the writing habit, as well.
    I have plenty of time to improve my writing as I no longer am working at the hospital. I think I can do better than be a housekeeper .I’m too old to keep up .So perhaps I’m unable to be meaningfully employed in any other pursuit than writing.

    • I think the Kaizen technique is a good one for anything that requires time and commitment: learning a second language, exercise, writing.