The Power of Small Thinking

At the beginning of this year, I took up Shotokan karate, partly inspired by my sons, and partly because a failed Personal Kanban experiment last year suggested that I needed to build exercise into my life in a more structured and disciplined way.  Two classes of karate per week, and the regular attendance required to qualify to grade to my next belt, certainly count as structure.

But after achieving my yellow belt a couple of months ago, it dawned on me that karate is going to be more demanding physically than anything I have ever done in my life and that I need to incorporate general fitness and strength training. With my dismal track record in setting and maintaining an individual exercise regime, this seemed like a particularly big challenge.

Until I realized that I was sabotaging myself from the outset by thinking of this as “a big challenge” – and that this same “big challenge” thinking was a root cause of the failure of my first exercise Kanban with its 12-week checklist structure.

Finding the right scale

I got up early one morning, having decided to just get started on a new routine and figure it out as I go along. As I worked my way through the set pattern of squats, lunges and calf raises, I started looking for a way to track my progress.

A few years ago, when I first followed the Body for Life program, the instructor gave us a weekly schedule to track our weight training progress. As I was using the same weight training regime, it seemed logical to use the same tracking schedule again. The idea behind the tracking is to try to do at least one more repetition in each set than the previous time, and once you were able to do all the repetitions in each set comfortably using the same weights, to move up to a heavier set of weights.

I hadn’t realized it back then, but it hit me that morning that this is a very tangible application of the principles of achieving kaizen through Kanban:

  • Visualization: The schedule is a simple visual reminder of the work to be done. Skipped sessions result in empty pages in the program schedule. You can also never go back to complete a skipped page after the fact.
  • Limiting Work in Progress: Instead of focusing on the entire horizon of the training program, the schedule lets you focus on two things only: that day’s session, and the one before it.
  • Metrics: The detailed tracking of repetitions and weights drives incremental change and learning about the abilities of your own body.

Adjusting the scale

Once all of this hit home, I saw a way to turn the old paper schedule into a more lightweight training board that may stand a greater chance of success in driving change in my life. Between sets, I excitedly put together the new board on a spare A4 size white board. By the end of the training session, I had a fully operational new exercise kanban.

New simplified exercise Kanban

Scale-adjusted Personal Kanban for exercise

Instead of recording the full history of daily schedules, the board focuses only on the current session and the one before it, with each half of the board dedicated to a single upper or lower body workout. It shows the repetitions in each set, the weights used and some annotations and comments, e.g. underlined numbers are sets where I missed the goal for the set. The next time I do the same workout, I erase the existing information and replace it with the latest information.

The absence of a larger scale of reference may seem like a flaw in this design, but I don’t think it is.  I believe this small horizon is at the very heart of the power in agile and lean approaches. By focusing on the job at hand, whether that is through limiting work in progress or through time boxes, you are removing the overwhelming scope of the larger context from the equation, enabling people to work as productively as they can on only that which they can work on right now.

How will I track whether I do the right number of training sessions each week, you may ask? I don’t know. And right now, it doesn’t matter. What matters is whether I am getting fitter and stronger over time. This board will tell me that very quickly. And as the board is placed right next to my training area where I see it every day when I get up, and every day before I go to sleep, I believe there’s enough visual control built in to the design for it to serve as a trigger of work to be done. I have also tied my exercise regime to my karate classes, helping to create a regular cadence.

But the biggest clue that this is already working for me, is that using it is leaving me feeling inspired and motivated, not guiltily ignoring the empty check boxes on a 12-week checklist kanban …

Is there something in your life where Big Thinking is holding you back? Why not try Small Thinking and apply it over a period of time? When you look back, you may discover that you have achieved something big along the way.

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2 Responses to The Power of Small Thinking

  1. I changed my eating habits last year by cutting out 1 thing each week. I began with cutting out alcohol, then added bread etc. By week 12 I had lost 14kg. I then added back, in moderation, only the things I REALLY missed. I very seldom have anything with wheat as I discovered that to be at the heart of many of my problems. It was interesting and really beneficial to my health, and surprisingly easy to do and to maintain.

    • Thanks for sharing, Michelle. Well done! Interestingly, changing my eating habits has never been a major challenge. Ever since doing Body for Life, I’ve for the most part maintained the eating pattern of 6 smaller meals per day, and balanced protein and carb intake. The challenge for me, with my hectic routine of work and kids, has been exercise. Although my weight was under control, I wasn’t toned and fit anymore, and I really missed that from a few years before. Starting karate has given me a whole new perspective on focusing on small improvements and adapting to a maintainable training schedule.

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