Did you know that if you eliminate one can of soda per day from your diet and change nothing else, you will have lost about 15 lbs. by this time next year?

Or that if every household in the US replaced one 60-watt light bulb with a CFL bulb, the energy saved would power all the homes in Delaware and Rhode Island?

That’s nice, but what’s your point?

My point is that tiny changes, over time (or multiplied by large numbers) can lead to some pretty big results. Indeed, it is often the seemingly insignificant or trivial details that separate good from great.

The thin line between first and second place

Case in point, do you remember the margin of victory in the men’s 100m butterfly at the 2008 Olympics, where Michael Phelps barely beat out Milorad Cavic for his 7th gold medal of the games?

.01 second

That’s about the length of a fingernail, if I did the math right ((100m / 50.89 seconds) / 100 = 1.965 centimeters = .774 inches).

Such a small margin of victory, and the disproportionate distribution of rewards (i.e. prize money, endorsements, recognition) is not as uncommon as it might seem. Take golf, for instance. According to the folks at 212°, from 2000-2006, the average margin of victory at the annual PGA Championships was 1.71 strokes — less than half a stroke per day (the tournament is four days long). Tiny difference right? Not so when it came to prize money. On average, the winner took home $600,057 more than the 2nd place finisher.

Then there’s Formula One. For the last 10 years, the average difference between 1st place and 2nd place at the Indy 500 has been 1.54 seconds. However, the winner took home $1,278,813 while the 2nd place finisher took home $621,321 (source: 212movie.com). Six hundred grand is nothing to sneeze at of course, but that’s an awfully big drop in pay for a difference of just 1.54 seconds.

In performance settings, the ramifications of being slightly off your game are not life-altering. Auditions and competitions, on the other hand, are a different story. No one can deny how different it feels to leave an audition with a job in hand vs. leaving as the runner-up, and as with the above examples from sports, how much of a difference in quality do you suppose there is between the audition performances of the winner and the runner-up?

Habits of excellence

Aristotle said “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.

What excellence-engendering habits are currently missing from your day? What habits, if integrated into your daily routine, might mean the difference between winning a job and being runner-up? Practicing consciously and deliberately? Score study/analysis? Listening to recordings? Critiquing recordings of yourself? Getting more sleep? Practicing in smaller chunks? Working on sight-reading skills? Monitoring self-talk? Using mental practice or visualization techniques more regularly? Increasing your awareness and control of physical tension?

Most of us know what we ought to do in order to become better…but that doesn’t mean we actually do these things.

Why do we sabotage our own success like this? Laziness? Lack of commitment or desire? Perhaps, but I would argue that it has more to do with the fact that we make change needlessly difficult, by looking for solutions that are too big.

The problem with seeking big solutions to big problems

There is an often-repeated (but mostly untrue) story about how NASA spent millions of dollars developing a special pen that would write in zero gravity, while the Soviets solved this problem by sending their cosmonauts into space with pencils.

When faced with a problem, we have a tendency to want to pull out the big guns and look for radical fixes. Though implementing dramatic changes can certainly work, the problem with big solutions is that they require making significant changes to our day-to-day behavior, which requires a hefty dose of commitment and willpower. As a result, we end up procrastinating or quickly reverting back to our old ways.

Want to know how to get around this issue?

The principle of kaizen

Kaizen is the popular term for the management philosophy of continuous improvement, or the implementation of small, easy, sustainable tweaks (translation: baby steps) rather than large-scale innovations.

Companies such as Toyota and Canon are known for their use of this strategy. For instance, at one plant alone in 1999, 7000 Toyota employees submitted over 75,000 suggestions, 99% of which were implemented (source).

How is this relevant to me?

When was the last time you made a New Year’s resolution that stuck for more than a few weeks? Most resolutions fail, because the changes they require are too drastic a departure from our daily routine. Given that we are creatures of habit, change require a tremendous amount of self-control and willpower to initiate and maintain. This wouldn’t be a big deal if our willpower was unlimited, but unfortunately, we have only a finite amount of willpower.

Kaizen helps us sidestep this whole willpower issue. By committing to small, almost trivial changes in behavior, we are able to begin building some momentum and forming habits, that over time, might very well be the difference between winning and coming in second.

As an example, here is one individual’s application of kaizen to the goal of exercising more frequently (source: One Small Step Can Change Your Life, written by psychologist Robert Maurer).

I once met a woman who wished to exercise and had even bought an expensive treadmill for her home. She still found herself avoiding exercise. I just can’t bring myself to do it, she thought. So she turned to kaizen. For the first month, she stood on the treadmill, read her newspaper, and sipped her coffee. For the next month, after finishing her coffee, she walked on the treadmill for one minute, increasing by a minute each week. During these early months, her small actions would have struck most people as ridiculous. But they weren’t, really. She was developing a tolerance for exercise. Soon her “ridiculous” small actions had grown into the firm habit of running one mile each day! Note that this gradual buildup to a steady program is the exact opposite of the usual pattern, in which a person starts off with a burst of activity for a few weeks, but then returns to a comfortable spot on the couch.

Can’t bring yourself to work on a new excerpt? Just practice the first measure. Don’t want to sit down and analyze the entire score? Just commit to one minute. Struggling to practice in the morning? Start by making it a habit to take your instrument out every morning.

The one-sentence six-sentence summary

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens — and when it happens, it lasts.”  ~John Wooden, legendary UCLA basketball coach