Mastering the Art of Continuous Improvement
I’ve been working a lot with my team on professional development. Many of them are still students and trying to figure out what to do post-graduation.
I’ve had a number of similar conversations about consistency working toward lifelong goals so I think it’s worthwhile writing down the points I’ve made.
It’s quite easy to attempt many things. It’s quite challenging to do a few things well. That’s why it’s important to limit your focus to a few really important daily habits and constantly improve on these routine tasks.
This is called Kaizen, or continuous improvement. It is a Japanese business philosophy that was created post-WWII that adopted most notably as the Toyota Way.
The idea is simple: take a single action and try to improve upon it each day. This enables you to develop a means of deliberate practice in which a critique is built into your work.
When starting a company, working for yourself, or working within a startup, the activity is so chaotic and the objectives, key performance indicators, and metrics are so unknown that it is difficult to continuously improve.
That is why I normally tell people to ignore the noise and pick five or less daily habits. Be specific. These should be picked on long-term principles and ideas rather than short-term issues.
Why daily habits? Each day if you do the same things, you gain mastery over those skills. Continuous improvement comes more from the continuous part. Consistency is key to developing professionally.
Start with as few daily habits as possible and grow them one-by-one. It takes an average of 66 days to ingrain a given habit so don’t stop. It should feel uncomfortable if you don’t complete your daily habits.
My daily habits are:
- Write 100 words before noon
- Send 10 emails by 5pm
- Read 1 technical document by 10pm
- Create 1 new thing for a long-term goal by 5pm
- Play/exercise/talk with a friend outside by 9pm
That’s it. On a good day I get 3 or more done. Notice how my outputs are greater than my inputs.
How do you pick those five things? The first step is to step back and look a your childhood. What did you want to be? What did you want to do?
Let’s say I wanted to be an astronaut. Start deconstructing the path to become an astronaut to give yourself the best chance. If most astronauts have over 1000 hours of flight experience, see what it takes to fly almost every day. If lessons are expensive, see if you can get paid doing scientific work. The more you know about being an astronaut, the more successful you will be at setting habits to get there. Start by interviewing existing astronauts and reading all you can about their stories.
Honestly that’s one of the best ways of testing whether or not you want to do something. Talk to someone who has done it. Interview them, understand their stories. Take a walk in their shoes by doing the work that they do. Find a mentor, someone you can continually come to for advice on the little tweaks to constantly improve.
Another way to become who you want to be is to pick a really challenging problem and try to solve it. This hones the questions you ask and directs them toward action.
For me, I have an overarching goal to become a scientist/entrepreneur. That esoteric goal involves learning all I can about scientist/entrepreneurs and how they came to discover and invent the world around us. My daily practice involves reading a paper and/or doing some work on an experiment. I read a lot and reach out to my heroes/people that I admire to get secondhand knowledge.
…that’s been the practice so far. The idea is that this will turn into something more. For now, I’m just having fun.