What the Japanese can teach you about writing

Reading time: Less than 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….

When my family and I moved out of our house for a major renovation 10 years ago, we wore our paper shredder to oblivion getting rid of old financial documents. And we gave away more than 18 boxes of books. But we also discovered a few treasures.

One was the short book One Small Step Can Change Your Life  by Robert Maurer, a professor at the UCLA school of medicine. I recall being briefly embarrassed to realize I had 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 while we were decluttering 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 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 become a better writer? Maurer offers six steps which I’ve listed below. 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 Netflix 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.

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

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Feb. 17/09.


Have you ever achieved outstanding results by starting with a very small step? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book Organized Enough by Amanda Sullivan. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

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