Even some of the most savvy business people I know often check their management smarts at the door when it comes to their personal lives. But while it may sound hopelessly practical and boring (hey, I’m an engineer after all), there’s quite a bit that good business management can teach us about optimizing our lives, too.
Following are three ways to apply the same strategies that have made companies like General Electric, Toyota and Siemens great to improve your life outside of work.
1. Continuous Improvement
The great Taiichi Ohno, a Japanese professor and businessman, and the father of “The Toyota Way” and Lean Manufacturing, once said, “The greatest problem is having no problems at all.”
At its root, Continuous Improvement is all about accepting that you will fail and striving for success, anyway. It uses failure as a learning experience to move on from, rather than letting it derail you. It’s not an unfamiliar idea outside of Japan. Plenty of Western business cliches can be traced back to it: “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” for example. Or, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Here’s how to go from the platitudes to a process that actually benefits your life:
First, set yourself a big, seemingly unattainable goal. People often limit themselves, right out of the gate, by setting only what they see as achievable goals. Get out of that mindset and really go for something you’ve always dreamed of. It might take you years to get there. Heck, you may never reach it, but I guarantee you, every day in the process of moving closer to it your life will improve exponentially.
Figure out your immediate first three steps to move you toward that goal. Then be brave and take those steps. If those steps successfully move you forward, great. Move on to the next three steps. If you fail, treat it as a learning exercise. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and then try again. Maybe you need to adjust your steps to focus on smaller tasks that will move you forward. Keep trying until you succeed, then move on.
Don’t get hung up on a bad day or even a stretch of several bad days. Just take it as a learning experience. Even when the obstacle blocking your path seems beyond your control, think about how you can change or adapt or somehow work around those obstacles. If you can’t take it head-on, how do you get around it?
Focus on your day-by-day progress. Get better each day and know that, over time, those incremental improvements move you closer to your ultimate goal. If you set a goal and accept that you’ll fail sometimes, and just learn every day, you can feel successful on a daily basis even though you’re nowhere close to your ultimate goal.
2. Turn one overwhelming project into several simple tasks
The most successful companies approach major transitions or initiatives by distilling what needs to be done down to several distinct tasks. This approach is just as effective when you’re facing an overwhelming project in your personal life, as well.
First, divide the task at hand into several smaller tasks. If there are items on that list that you know exactly how to tackle, do them first. Then, if you’re not sure how to proceed past a certain point, try to establish tasks that will enable you to figure out what to do next. If you need to renovate your kitchen, for example, and you don’t know where to begin, then your first task is go talk to a contractor or go to Home Depot and look around.
If you’re feeling really overwhelmed, don’t wait until you’ve figured out every detail. Just start. This approach can be particularly helpful for big life changes that have an emotional or stressful undercurrent to them. If you’re expecting your first child, for example, it can seem completely impossible to imagine all the things you’ll need to be prepared for, and to organize and accomplish all of them. Breaking it down into small, practical tasks can remove some of the panic, helping you not only to get everything done, but also to feel a little less stressed in the meantime.
3. Data-based decision-making
The best companies decide things like whether to focus on growth or cost-cutting on actual data, not just the arbitrary decision of whoever seems like the smartest person in the conference room. Taking a similar approach to life decisions can really help to not only guide you to the right choices for your life, but also to remove some of the emotion and stress that often cloud big life decisions.
How you feel about things is an important data point but combining that with other information tends to improve decision-making. I’m not just talking about basic data points from a quantified self app, like how well you’re sleeping or how much exercise you’re getting. Although those things can be helpful, I’m talking more about gathering a variety of data points until you have enough information to make an educated decision.
If you’re thinking about buying a house, for example, there may be emotional components to it — you’re tired of renting, you want to set up a home, you just like the idea of owning a house. Those are all valid data points, but most people could benefit from adding things like housing trends, market fluctuations, interest rates, historical data and neighborhood news like whether there’s a new development breaking ground soon or the school district is about to be redrawn.
A big decision people grapple with is whether or not to leave a job. A more objective approach to your subjective feelings about your job can help you work through that question. Set a baseline – ask yourself how satisfied you are with your work, how many hours you spend working, how much you like your boss, how likely your job is to help you meet your long-term goals. Track those feelings over the course of one to three months.
Look also at more objective data like your cost of living, what sort of salary you need to live and how likely you’d be to find another job should you leave this one. You could even take one of a handful of self-administered workplace happiness surveys (this one was developed by the Zappos folks, and these were developed by famed psychologist and Flourish author Martin Seligman).
Armed with that data you’ll be able to make a decision that not only makes logical sense, but also makes you feel good.