In 2015, I set a New Year’s resolution to achieve the goal of waking up at 5 a.m. daily from January through to December.
During the first week of January, I nailed it. I woke up at 5 a.m. — even 4 a.m. on some days — every single day that week. Easy!
Or was it?
By February, my motivation and willpower started to drop off. Instead of waking up to my alarm at 5 a.m., I would hit the snooze button and stay in bed till 7 a.m.
By March, I had given up on my new morning routine. I was back to my old habits of waking up after 5 a.m.
I’d failed to achieve my goal, but this wasn’t the first time. 3 years prior, I had set the same New Year’s Resolution and failed in each consecutive year leading up to this one.
Maybe you can also relate to my struggles with inconsistency. Do you sometimes feel like it’s unnecessarily hard to achieve your goals and New year’s resolutions?
Most importantly, is there an easier way to achieve your goals? An approach that is stress-free, foolproof and effective?
I’d like to share a strategy that has been working for me, which could also help you achieve your goals the easy way.
But first, why can it be so hard to achieve your goals?
Why is it so hard to achieve your goals?
Research suggests that approximately 81 percent of New Year’s Resolutions fail (this ranges up to 92 percent). 
In other words, you’re more likely to fail to achieve your goals or stick to new habits at least 8 times out of 10 than otherwise.
The odds are not in our favor and there are several reasons for this.
But, by far the biggest reason is this: we focus too much on the goal and not enough on the systems or habits required to achieve it.
In other words …
“A goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.”
— Scott Adams
To explain this better, imagine two people with weight loss goals — let’s call them Ben and Lisa.
Ben is primarily goal focused. Ben says that he wants to lose 35 pounds in 6 months.
Every day Ben looks in front of the mirror, looking for signs of weight loss. He’s disappointed with his progress given his long hours spent running on the treadmill daily.
After 3 months of an intensive exercise routine and strict diet plan, Ben finally gives up on his weight loss goal.
Ben mentions that his current weight loss progress is much slower than expected.
Ben’s obsession with the goal led him to do too much too quickly. It also created unrealistic and inflexible deadlines to achieve his goal creating the feelings of failure from little progress.
This explains why Ben failed to achieve his goal.
What about Lisa?
Unlike Ben, Lisa took a completely different approach. An easier way to achieve your goals using the “Kaizen” approach.
Let’s explore that now.
The “Kaizen” approach for progress
“Excellence is not a destination; it is a continuous journey that never ends.”
— Brian Tracy
First off, what exactly is “Kaizen”?
Kaizen is the Japanese philosophy and practice of continuous improvement.
Instead of making big changes all at once, the kaizen approach focuses on small improvements over time for big results.
This idea was originally influenced by American management theorists during WWII, who focused on improving production efforts with little resources available.
After the war, America brought in these experts to help rebuild the weakened Japanese factories. The Japanese took these ideas of continuous improvement and called it “Kaizen.”
Since then, the Japanese have successfully used the Kaizen approach to rebuild their economy and grow several automobile giants including Toyota and Honda.
To better understand this, let’s get back to Lisa in the previous example.
Instead of choosing a goal-focused approach like Ben, Lisa chooses a Kaizen approach.
Lisa says that her goal is to lose 35 pounds, but she immediately shifts her focus towards a system or habit to achieve this.
Her system is to run on the treadmill for 30 minutes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday — and to eat three fruits daily.
If she can stay consistent with this system, the likelihood of achieving her goal is higher than otherwise.
But, that’s not all she did.
Using the Kaizen approach, Lisa decides to slowly build this system into her lifestyle through small continuous improvements over time.
For example, during the first week, instead of immediately running 3 times a week for 30 minutes, Lisa runs for 5 minutes on a Friday.
In week 2, Lisa runs for 5 minutes on a Friday and a Wednesday.
In week 3, Lisa runs for 5 minutes on a Friday, Wednesday, and Monday.
And so on. You get the drift.
After 3 months (remember Ben had already dropped out) Lisa was still consistent with her routine, improving her system little by little on a weekly basis.
After 6 months, to her surprise, Lisa’s friends and colleagues started commenting on how much weight she had lost. After checking the scales, Lisa realized that her goal had been exceeded, even though she hadn’t been thinking about it for months!
By using a system focused Kaizen approach to achieve her weight loss goals, Lisa was able to break down a big goal into small sustainable changes that made consistent action easy.
It’s much easier to get going and overcome procrastination, if the task at hand is smaller.
Here’s how you can use Kaizen to achieve your goals …
How to achieve your goals using the “Kaizen” Approach.
Remember my personal struggle with the morning routine that I shared with you in the introduction?
In 2016, after years of failure, I used the Kaizen approach to build the habit of waking up at 5 a.m.
Here’s how you can do this too …
Step 1: Create a system to achieve your goals.
What are the daily or weekly behaviors or habits that will help you achieve your goal as a by-product?
For example, when I set a goal of reading 25 books a year, I developed a system of reading 20 pages a day.
By setting my focus on reading 20 pages per day, my goal of reading 25 books a year would be a by-product of this habit.
If you want to lose weight — just like the Lisa example — save more money or even start keeping a journal, simply create systems that will achieve your goal.
Step 2: Breakdown the system into its smallest form.
Now you want to think about the smallest version of your system i.e. an action or behavior with the least resistance and effort for you to get started on a daily basis.
For example, instead of attempting to wake up at 5 am every day, I decided to only do this on Mondays during my first 2 weeks of this morning routine.
When I started a reading habit, I’d focus on reading just one page every other day.
Before writing for this newsletter every Monday, I started off writing an article once every month and a half.
The key here is to uncover the first step that would be small and easy enough for you to do consistently.
Step 3: Make small improvements until your original system is a habit.
You now have an original system to achieve your goals broken down into smaller parts. Once you’ve built a habit of the smaller parts, you can now start to make small improvement or changes leading up to the original system.
For example, after 2 weeks of waking up at 5 am on Mondays, I added Fridays into my morning routine the following 2 weeks.
In other words, it was only after I got into the habit of waking up at 5 am on Mondays, that Fridays were introduced into the routine.
The idea here is to make continuous improvements until your original system becomes a habit.
Remember your original “system” is simply the complete set of habits or behaviors that will help you achieve your goals as a by-product.
So in my case, during weeks 4 through 7, I introduced Wednesdays and so on. Several months later I had successfully built the habit of waking up at 5 am, 6 days out of the week.
The same strategy can be applied to any other systems. For example …
If you want to read 20 pages a day: Read a page a day on week 1, two pages a day on week two, three pages a day on week 3 and so on.
If you want to exercise three times a week: Go for a run once a week on week 1, twice a week on week 3, three times a week on week 8 and so on.
If you want to write 500 words daily: Write 500 words once a week on week 1, twice a week on week 4, three times a week on week 10 and so on.
These are of course hypothetical scenarios, but I’m sure you can now see a pattern in this Kaizen approach to achieve your goals.
Create the system (or behavior patterns to achieve the goal), break it down to small enough parts and then improve continuously until the original system becomes a habit.
It’s that simple … or is it?
Focus on progression, Not the goal
“Forget about perfection; focus on progression, and compound the improvements.”
— Sir Dave Brailsford
The reality is that it is that simple, but our tendency is to look for the perfect solution with quick results.
We obsess about our goals, take too much action too quickly and beat ourselves up whenever our progress doesn’t match up.
This is the hard way to achieve your goals that often results in failure.
The Kaizen approach takes the pressure off the outcome and helps you to stay consistent with your goals at a sustainable pace.
It focuses on building the habits (systems) through small continuous improvements over time for a real change in identity.
This is the easy way to achieve your goals this year.
Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares practical self-improvement ideas and proven science for better health, productivity and creativity. To get practical ideas on how to stop procrastinating and build healthy habits, you can join his free weekly newsletter here.
A version of this article originally appeared at mayooshin.com as “How to achieve your goals the easy way (using the Kaizen approach)”
- A research study by psychology professor John Norcross on success rate of New Year’s resolution.