Kaizen, Wabi-Sabi, Konmari Three Japanese style Zen practices to bring order and joy to your life


Zen is not a Japanese invention; it originated in India with the practice of Zen Buddhism which came to Japan via China. The term Zen was actually derived from the Chinese Chan. However, the Japanese were quick to put the reflective and meditative philosophy to practical and efficient use. They fashioned the concept of Kaizen – translated as good change -incorporating the basic principles of Zen Buddhism on a practical level. Kaizen is used to improve and innovate your daily tasks and routines.

Post-WWII Japan became a manufacturing power horse, building a strong economy based on very efficient production methods coupled with a humanising philosophy applied to their work force. Toyota was one of the spear headers of this movement which recognised motivation, appreciation of worker’s efforts, team work and team participation in the manufacturing process and management decision making as critical underpinnings of their competitive success strategy. That philosophy was directly responsible for improving efficiency on the factory floor, reducing waste significantly and gaining workers’ cooperation and pride in their jobs. Instead of meting out old-fashioned reprimands or punishment for worker errors, company management empowered their employees to stop production to fix errors and provide management with suggestions and insights to improve efficiency and reduce waste.

Kaizen encourages a team approach to solve problems and meet challenges by the simple application of implementing small improvements over time resulting in substantial advances in the long run. It’s the most astute encapsulation of the ‘work smart, not hard’ principle.

Following Toyota’s lead, other companies followed suit and kaizen became a popular and accepted practice not only in Japan; it migrated to other countries like the USA and Europe. In essence, it revolutionised all types of industries and organisations, blue collar and white collar alike.

Kaizen is not a rigid system or one that is only applicable to business or industry. This concept translates well to personal work and productivity; it can effectively streamline the way you work and improve your chances at success. It is flexible, adaptable to your own personal style, preferences and personality. You can take the bits and pieces that work for you and discard, adapt or improve the ones that don’t. It can be clothed in a mantra like ‘Just 5 minutes at a time’ or ‘Work 1% better today’ that keeps you motivated; it can be applied to your everyday life activities.

If you have days where your time seems to be pilfered away by distractions, interruptions, bad moods or too many meetings, there is help. Use some of the following steps to apply the Kaizen method and improve your productivity:

  • Determine where your time and energy is wasted by keeping track of your daily activities, interruptions and downtime for about one week and ferret out the unnecessary time wasters. If you have routine tasks to accomplish, evaluate whether they can be made more efficient by applying standardised processes like templates, optimised filing systems, set times for emails and phone calls. If you have many meetings to attend, decide whether your presence is essential; if not delegate or minimise the amount of participation.
  • Start with small steps to make your work more productive and efficient. If you are overwhelmed by a task at hand it’s far easier on your stress level to break it down in manageable parts. Do 5 minutes instead of an hour and repeat every day until the task is finished. For instance, a long report can be written in stages instead of all at once. Limit your ‘wasted’ time on distractions like social media.
  • Make time to evaluate what works for you and what doesn’t. Focus on things you can improve. If you’re stymied or hit a snag, become frustrated and distracted, slow down, pause a moment and ask yourself what can be improved or changed to make it smoother or better. Weekly reviews to evaluate your progress and accomplishments help you prioritise and re-shift your focus. Take stock of your high and low points and ask yourself what you can improve or innovate.

Another Japanese Zen practice is the esoteric Wabi-Sabi, a concept that is difficult to translate. Wabi refers to rustic simplicity, humility, living in tune with nature and appreciation of the quirks and anomalies which add uniqueness and elegance to an object or experience. Sabi is more about accepting the passage of time and the beauty, even imperfect, of aging. Together, the words convey a feeling of harmony and serenity, even melancholy, in what is uncomplicated, unassuming, mysterious and ephemeral.

Wabi-Sabi is a concept you will encounter most often in design and home decorating. It is intrinsically linked to minimalism, a trend that celebrates clean, uncluttered spaces where decor is reduced to its essentials. A trend that is definitely rooted in Zen Buddhism.

Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, authenticity, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes. It includes the acceptance of transience and imperfection. A great example of that is Kintsugi, translated as golden joinery, the centuries-old art of repairing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver or platinum.

In essence wabi-sabi can be applied to your lifestyle – and not just your decor – by celebrating humble and authentic materials and experiences, avoiding clutter and feeling unencumbered, seeking simplicity without sacrificing beauty. Embrace emptiness and solitude to inspire and rejuvenate yourself. Anchor yourself in nature and its authentic colours, moods and openness. Open your windows, door and mind to the outdoors and let the natural light and natural flagrances seep in.

Closely aligned with the concept of wabi-sabi and minimalism is the KonMari method, the art of de-cluttering and organising developed by Marie Kondo, a Japanese organising consultant who insists you should only own and keep the things that ‘spark joy’. Kondo’s method, again, is based on the traditional Japanese Zen approach to spare aesthetics. It takes the typical tidying-up to a whole new level and, in doing so, it aims to cultivate a lifestyle that encourages one to cherish the things that bring true joy. Yes, it is minimalism, albeit with a heart.

Marie has written a best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy, to explain her method. She also appears on Netflix and is becoming a celebrity worldwide with a big fan base. Her motto is Tidy your space, transform your mind. This translates into a philosophy of discarding the things in your home and your life that do not bring joy to you. Marie advises to start with an exercise in imagining what kind of home you would like to live in and the lifestyle you want. This will set you on the path to start a radical decluttering of your possessions and only keep those that fit into your imaginary life.   It’s quite simple actually: with each item ask yourself if it sparks joy. If yes, you get to keep it; if no, you discard it mercilessly. That means getting rid of piles of stuff and Marie says you need to do it in one fell swoop, not room by room but by category like clothes, books & papers, photos & mementoes. You even have to pare down your storage; only keep what you love to see and use.

A pared-down home equals a tidy, clean mind, according to Marie, and she promises it will transform your life. You can learn all about it on www.konmari.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/konmarimethod and Instagram at @mariekondo.

However, if KonMari does not appeal to you and your closets are bulging and in need of a bit of decluttering, you can apply the Kaizen babysteps method and do a bit of frock curating in 5 to 15 minute intervals on a daily basis. Do encourage yourself to repurpose those satin harem pants with price tag still attached you bought 20 years ago. It’s an illusion to think they will be back in style one of these days.

If you are a skilled hoarder, the KonMari philosophy of drastic paring down will be a challenge. Minimalism is an acquired taste and to some people it feels cold and impersonal, almost too testosterone-filled. Like a lot of people, I like the lived-in look with plenty of flowers and ‘chotskes’, piles of books and magazines and soft cushions to invite relaxation and rejuvenation. After all, if they bring joy, would Marie Kondo not approve?.


By Ines Wynn

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