The Open Window: Tiny Kaizen Steps to Completion

Insights on Creativity by Quinn McDonald

Maybe you’ve gotten your taxes all buttoned up already. Sadly, I have not. I hate the drudgery of taxes, which is not a creative project in my book. So I avoid tackling the work. It slides until I am forced into it, resisting all the way.

It’s not just taxes. Creative projects also have drudgery. B.B. King, the blues guitarist, warned us that “The Thrill is Gone.” There comes a day when that challenging project is too much effort, too big to handle. What seemed fun yesterday is overwhelming today. Tempting as it is, ignoring the project won’t work. You will begin to fear your studio, and eventually, your creativity. (In the case of taxes, the IRS frowns on skipping payment.) So, work needs doing, and you aren’t willing. What now?

Challenges and problems often don’t get solved with one big push, they get solved with tiny steps. How tiny? The maximum amount you can easily accomplish. I got the idea from the Japanese method of continual incremental improvement, called the Kaizen method. Kaizen means improvement, but is made up of two concepts: Kai means change and zen means to become good. So you are looking for the change that will make the project good, then breaking the change into tiny manageable steps.

Success in kaizen depends on each step being just manageable. As little as 15 seconds if the project is tough. You can also measure in action. “Open your computer” might be the first action. As long as it is forward action, it doesn’t matter if you measure it in time or steps.

Is the best you can do today is pull the project out of the closet? Then that is all you do today. Tomorrow, is the best you can do to look at the color scheme and decide if it works? That’s enough. Each time you do the smallest thing you can manage, you edge toward completion, one decision at a time.

Almost always, you reach a tipping point. You’ve been working for several sessions and your fear disappears. The project isn’t so difficult. At that point, you discover energy for the project. Several hours later, you are still working, involved and interested. That feeling is part of what creativity expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  calls flow, and it is the imaginative, problem-solving stage of creativity.

True, kaizen work doesn’t automatically guarantee flow. They are miles apart. Often you will do a series of tiny steps until the work is done, without flow. You might manage discipline for an hour of work. But each session moves your project further toward completion. You recapture the courage and discipline you thought you lost. Building on success is a wonderful method to build more success. And the more we practice success, the more often we experience it.


Quinn McDonald is an artist and certified creativity coach who helps artists through transitions in their lives and work. You can e-mail your business-of-art questions to Quinn is the author of Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art (North Light Books).


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