Annual Kaizen review: my self improvement in 2014







December 31, 2014

What have you changed about yourself in the past 12 months? It’s one of my favorite questions when doing job interviews. It tells you quite a few things about the candidate.

What have you changed about yourself in the past 12 months? It’s one of my favorite questions when doing job interviews. It tells you quite a few things about the candidate:

  • Do they think change is a good thing?
  • Do they equal change with learning?
  • Have they consciously given thought to self-improvement?

Many interviewees will respond with a blank stare, others might ask what I meant. But some will immediately “get it” and rattle of habits they have changed and what they have learned in the past year.

It’s all about “good change"

The process of Kaizen (改善) originates from Japan. Literally it means “good change”, but it’s loosely translated and used as “continuous improvement”. Probably the most well-known aspect of it comes from the Toyota Production System. The car manufacturer famously gave assembly line workers the authority to pause the conveyer belt if they thought something was wrong. Kaizen is more than just assembly-line-autonomy though. Its purpose is to reduce wasteful activities and increase the well-being of everyone involved in the process. Kaizen encourages little experiments (trial and error), instead of sticking with rigid procedures and doing things the same way forever. When applied on a more personal level, this means you strive to make (small) changes for self-improvement on a regular basis.

What I’ve changed in 2014

I am a big believer in constantly making small changes and trying out new things, to improve myself over time. Therefore, I’m sharing with you what changes I’ve made in 2014. Perhaps they can inspire you to reflect on your own self-improvement in 2014, or provide ideas for what you can aim for in 2015.

1. The Stoic Mindset

Beyond a doubt, changing my mindset has been the most important change I’ve made in 2014. Inspired by the book “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday, I’ve embraced the core principles of Stoicism. To me that means focusing on the things I can change, believing there’s always another way and accepting everything else gracefully. Miraculously I finished the book two weeks before the mobile gaming company I was working for reduced their staff with 85%. Along with many others, I lost my job in the process. Now I’m not one to quickly panic and I do have some entrepreneurial experience under my belt. But finding a new way as a Dutchman in China and deciding to launch a productivity company, is not the most secure and easy road one can take (if I may say so myself :) ) The Stoic mindset and motivation from The Obstacle is the Way helped me embark on this journey. It allowed me to distinguish between what was under my control and what wasn’t, as well as put past failures into perspective and give me the confidence and motivation to get going. It's a very easy read and I can wholeheartedly recommend it if you're looking to get motivated, or simply learn how to deal with the shit that inevitable happens to all of us at one point or another.

Honorable mention: since June I’ve been meditating regularly thanks to the Headspace app. This has also considerably improved my clarity of thought and calmness in any situation.

2. Essentialism

Until I read "Essentialism" by Greg McKeown in May of this year, my mantra was "Everything, all the time." I believed I could do at least ten things at the same time:

  • A busy management job during the day.
  • Pursue personal business ideas in my spare time.
  • Write a book at 6 am.
  • Learn Chinese on the side at 7 am.
  • Party on the weekend.
  • Read several books per month.
  • Go to the gym four times per week.
  • Have a relationship.
  • Play computer games.
  • And so on.

As long as I would become ever more efficient, I would be able to do it all. Reading McKeown's book was like a positive punch in the face: if you do too many things at the same time, you will fail at them all. Since reading it, I've gotten into the habit of making "no" my default answer to everything, and I've greatly reduced all the different activities I'm pursuing. I take things one step at a time, and constantly consider what is the most important thing I can do next. In other words, I get more done by taking my time and am much more selective about my commitments. Practically it means giving everything an importance rating of 1 - 10 (ten being most important) and getting rid of everything below a nine. This is incredibly hard, because it means saying no to perfectly fine ideas and opportunities. But as Essentialism prescribes:

It's about making the trade-off between lots of good things and a few really great things."

3. Stopped drinking alcohol

This is not something I necessarily recommend to anyone. It's also not that I have had any real problems with alcohol, nor that I'm against drinking. But, considering partying and music events had been my profession for more than a decade, the joy of doing crazy stuff and hitting bars and clubs slowly lost its appeal on me. Alcohol definitely played a significant role in that lifestyle. Giving it up has given me a much calmer and clearer mind, allowing me to explore a side of life I neglected for a long time: reading, writing and other intellectual pursuits. You can read more about this experience in one of my personal blog posts on Medium titled "Warning: Not Drinking Alcohol is a Bad Habit".

4. Daily Scrum meetings

While running the Marketing & Publishing team at a mobile gaming company earlier this year, I was introduced to the "daily Scrum meeting". It's part of the methodology of Agile project management, but even by itself I found the effects on the team profound. As with a lot of brilliant things, the concept is very easy: you meet with your team once per day, very briefly. The way the team and me set it up was as follows:

  1. We gather in front of a whiteboard.
  2. Each individual writes their goal(s) for that day on the board.
  3. Each individual marks on the board whether they achieved yesterday's goals.
  4. Notify each-other of  issues or info they need from other team members.

The meeting shouldn’t last longer than ten minutes and can be done either at the end or the start of the day. I opted for the latter, so people would be forced to think of their goals when they have a fresh and clear mind in the morning. The whiteboard was also essential, as the commitment is stronger when you write down your goals in front of the group, as opposed to merely saying them. It also serves as a physical point of reference and reminder for everyone throughout the day. Though it sounds easy, the hardest part of applying this correctly is consistency. You have to do the meeting every day without fail for this to make a true impact. That’s hard. But when you do, it will really increase the effectiveness, collaboration and morale of the team.

5. How to read

If you’re reading this, you know how to read. But do you know how to read? Chances are you’re interested in learning and self-improvement. That means you probably also read non-fiction books on a variety of topics (or at least you try). But if you’re a bit like me, you read the books, remember a few of the key concepts, maybe write down a quote or two and that’s it. Deep down inside, we know there is a better way. There’s more to gain from most of those books than we actually do, but it’s hard work. It means we need to study them, as opposed to merely reading them. Reading is easy, studying is hard. After reading “How to read a book” on Farnam Street, I’ve taken a good look in the mirror and admitted to myself: I can do better at reading. No more racing through non-fiction books and only really storing 10% - 20% for the long-term. Instead, I have lowered the quantity and improved the quality of my reading (sounds familiar? It fits nicely with the "Essentialism" concept mentioned earlier in this post). What does this mean?

  1. Don’t read just any book that falls into your lap. Carefully consider what you should read next. It’s a big commitment, so it should be treated as such.
  2. After choosing which book to take on next, go through the table of contents to get a feel for the book and make sure it is what you’re looking for.
  3. Make a summary of each chapter after you’ve finished it.
  4. Don’t feel guilty to put down the book if you lose interest and/or it’s not what you expected.
  5. Only read one non-fiction book at a time.

I have to admit I’m a bit sloppy on point three, as I sometimes just want to (and do) keep reading. But eventually I will go back and make a summary. Not only does this help me memorize much better what I’ve read and learned, but it also provides a good reference to fall back on when I want to look something up related to the book's topic (or simply need a quote). Evernote power bonus: if you use Evernote a lot and store the summaries in there, the book will also come up when you’re searching for related terms or can even come up automatically in the “context” mode of Evernote. For example, while preparing this draft in Evernote, the context shows my book summary of "Essentialism".

Continuous change and self-improvement in 2015

What I will change in 2015 I’m not sure of yet. What I do know is that I will keep trying out new things. Some will be useful, other experiments will prove a waste of time. But in reality they’re not, as they will lead me to realize what works and what doesn’t. They will teach me a better way of doing things in the long run, instead of just sticking with the same old routine. Muhammed Ali summed it up best:

The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

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