Wednesday, 17 April 2013

How Kaizen Can Motivate Writers

I wrote an overview of Kaizen in writing a couple of weeks ago. I explained how the concept is about taking small but continuous steps towards improvement. Since I started thinking about kaizen and how it can help writers, I haven't been able to stop! I also thought others might benefit from seeing how I apply kaizen to more specific aspects of writing.

Kaizen gets you past the fear.

That's one of the reasons for its success: big actions tend to be scary and involve a lot of risk and effort, whereas kaizen encourages you to take small, incremental steps that are so easy there's no excuse for not doing the tasks. Dividing what you want to achieve into tiny steps is rather like chunking. When using kaizen, the idea is to make the chunks ludicrously small - whether you feel you need to or not.

Example: you might want to write a short story. The initial kaizen steps could look like this...

1/. Pick a name for your protagonist

2/. Give your protagonist a problem
Any problem that pops into your head. Or pick one from a magazine problem page or website.

3/. Pick a setting
Any setting that works for your character and his/her problem. Stick a pin in a map if you're stuck.

4/. Select a key personality trait
Anything. Even if it sounds silly. Don't worry about how it fits in with your character's problem.

5/. think of what can go wrong
You can do this all in one go, as a brainstorming exercise, or separate into mini-steps and think of each obstacle as a step.

6/. Choose your main obstacle
Don't over-think it. Pick whichever one catches your eye.

7/. Pick a secondary obstacle (or two, or decide you don't need one)

8/. Choose names for the characters who cause problems/obstacles for your protagonist
This might be obvious because of the problem you've chosen - if your character's problem is that her mother is terminally ill and wants to do a skydive that the protagonist thinks is too dangerous and therefore wants to stop, the mother is the main antagonist.

Your obstacles may also create antagonists/mini-antagonists. In the example above, the protagonist's major obstacle might be that her sister thinks it's a great idea and is helping her mother get a lot of sponsorship in aid of a charity that helps the mother.

If your problem and obstacles don't offer an obvious antagonist, brainstorm people who could try to stop the protagonist reaching their goal. Again, you could break this into mini-steps and think of one such character per day.

And so on...

Doesn't this look ludicrously simple? Yes. That's the precise point of kaizen. It's about finding low-key solutions rather than huge innovations. It's much easier to implement and is just as effective as a massive change - if not more effective.

I could go for a walk, for instance, and think of an idea for a short story that comes in one huge blob. Great! Trouble is. I could walk for hours without getting such inspiration. The kaizen approach, on the other hand, ensures results.

I could go for an hour's walk every day for a week and not come up with a story. Or I could follow a few tiny kaizen steps that take a few minutes each day and come up with an outline. For minimal time and effort, I get a tangible result.

Which you can emulate!

Of course, one of the best things about Kaizen is that anyone can do it. I would struggle to explain how I get ideas when I'm in the middle of something else - I could offer theories as to why some of my best ideas come the second I leave the computer and go to the toilet, but I can't describe the process in detail. At best, I could offer vague advice about keeping your mind open to ideas. Kaizen, on the other hand, enables me to show how big changes can be broken down into simple actions. It is highly adaptable and accessible.

The initial motivation comes from the steps being so small that there's no excuse not to do them. The steps then spark ideas that may motivate you - but even if they don't, it doesn't matter! You just continue doing each small step because there's no excuse not to. Having said that, in my experience, small kaizen actions lead to a plethora of ideas that renew your motivation.