Prevent Fear From Holding You Back

Over time, small steps add up to big change.

Posted May 06, 2020

Keep your fear asleep while you achieve your goals.
Source: Freepik

Have you failed to reach goals throughout your life because you felt like there was something in your brain holding you back? That something could be the human brain's natural tendency to respond to perceived threats with fear.

When the brain perceives a threat, the amygdala — a brain region centrally involved in fear — sets off a fight-flight-or-freeze response that leads us to stand our ground, run away, or become paralyzed. A million years ago, a threat was a cave lion or a monster pig. Today, a threat can be the reality of COVID-19, the thought of asking someone out for a date, or even an imagined goal.

A goal implies change, and with it, uncertainty and potential threat. We fear the threat of not achieving our goals, we fear the changes in our life that will come as a result of achieving our goals, and as Robert Maurer writes in his book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, we fear that we might achieve goals in the pursuit of happiness and still be unhappy.1  There is a philosophy called Kaizen that has helped Olympic athletes, billion-dollar multinational organizations, and everyday individuals overcome the fear produced by the brain in response to goals through a bit of trickery. Let's learn what Kaizen means.

"Kaizen" is the Japanese word for continuous improvement. Kaizen comes from a strategy called Training Within Industry (TWI) that the United States used during World War II to quickly build enough military equipment to help win the war. War supplies had to be manufactured at a whirlwind pace to be sent overseas. There was not enough manpower, time, or existing facilities for full-fledged war factories, so the United States had to use what it had.

Organizations across the country were trained in TWI to immediately make small improvements in production using existing resources rather than trying to make sweeping, radical changes. Managers were encouraged to ask lower-level employees what they thought would make their jobs more efficient and productive; war is no time for (internal) power struggles. And it worked.

After WWII, the United States helped Japan rebuild their own economy using the same training philosophy of making small improvements to continually improve. Japanese managers trained in TWI brought their knowledge and enthusiasm back to companies in the form of Kaizen. Before long, Japanese companies like Toyota had become giants in their industries through small, continuous improvement. 

How can we use the philosophy of Kaizen to enact change and achieve our goals now? The trick for us is to set goals so small and quiet that our amygdala does not wake up and set off our fight-flight-or-freeze response.

Although our perfectionistic selves may complain about setting small goals, these small goals actually appear so safe and harmless to our brains that we are free to continue improving without fear holding us back.

Here are some examples of ways to tiptoe by your amygdala in a more successful way than setting goals that are so big and scary for our brains that we end up burning out.

  1. I need to exercise more. Pace around your house for 10 seconds today.
  2. I should read more. Read one sentence of a book.
  3. I want to meditate for 30 minutes a day. Meditate for one full breath.
  4. I need to get up earlier. Set your alarm to go off one minute earlier than usual. 
  5. It is really important that I apply for some jobs. Write down one job that you might like doing. Tomorrow, add one more job to your list. 

If any of these goals seem too small to work, that means they are also too small for your brain to interfere and get worked up about! We have long been taught that change comes from setting high expectations for ourselves. We set a dream goal, perhaps write it down, and set an intention to achieve it in six months. Perhaps we decide to break a bad habit by going cold turkey. Even in consumer culture, we assume that radical new products spur true innovation. There are times when the strategy of radical change can work, but for each goal around the world that is achieved this way, there are 10 more New Year's Resolutions or crash diets that we will have to try again next time.

So, starting today, try setting the smallest goal you can think of for something you would like to improve and do it every day this week. It should be a goal so small and simple that you would have to really try in order to not accomplish it. Next week, add a tiny bit to your daily goal (e.g., add one minute or one item to your goal) and do that for a week. Keep continuously improving, every single day, building new neural pathways while your amygdala is none the wiser. In a culture that promises quick fixes for our problems, the Kaizen Method is not a quick fix — which is a change in itself.


Maurer, Robert. One small step can change your life: The kaizen way. Workman Publishing, 2014.1