The Art of Taking Action: Japanese Psychology

by | Jan 4, 2020

It is a tough job being my own boss, I have to manage myself. I am the type of employee that will try to get out of doing and/or put off tasks I dislike such as administrative and writing. This is a problem as I’m the only full-time employee in my company. My boss self is always asking my employee self to be more efficient, productive, organized, blah, blah, blah. So I’m invariably on the search for tips and techniques to better self manage. Recently, I came across an Art of Manliness podcast with Gregg Krech talking about how to take action, the Japanese psychology way. I was intrigued. I had tried the Western approach––writing to do lists and buying loads of productivity apps; read books such as Getting Things Done; used Pomodoro technique––many times over, so why not try something different? I downloaded Krech’s book The Art of Taking Action: Japanese Psychology.

Before I started the book, I wrote down what questions I hoped the book will answer for me (See why I did this here): What is Japanese psychology?, How is it different from other methods I’ve tried? Can it help me be better at doing?

What is Japanese Psychology? 

Japanese psychology emphasizes actions over feelings and is centered on three key concepts: Morita therapy, Naikan, and the principle of Kaizen. Morita therapy says first, you must accept feelings without avoidance, resignation or complaining. Acceptance leads to action, you can’t do something about a situation you don’t accept. Naikan is the practice of self-reflection— reflecting on your life, what you’ve done and doing, so you know what future actions to take. It offers the following three questions that must be answered within a specific time:

  1. What have I received from __?

  2. What have I given to __?

  3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused __?

Taking action doesn’t have to be taking big steps, which can seem daunting especially if it is an action you don’t want to do but have to do. For example, exercising: if you don’t like exercising but you’ve accepted you have to do it for your health, you can start by doing just five minutes on day one, insignificant enough to keep resistance at bay. The next day you do six minutes, increasing the time spent by a few minutes every day. This is what the principle of kaizen teaches, taking incremental actions to achieve continuous improvement.

How is what this book is proposing different from other methods I’ve tried?

It doesn’t preach how to eliminate feelings that can prevent taking actions. Instead, it proposes some tools and tips on how to live with them and still get things done.  Here are the tips that most stood out for me are:

The first key concept introduced in the book that resonated with me was the equation for having a meaningful life: “reflection + risks=contribution”. I often ponder what is a meaningful life and how to achieve it. The book doesn’t endeavour to define what is a meaningful life, as it is different for each person. Nevertheless, it does assert that the answer can be found by reflecting. To achieve whatever goals or ideas come out of reflecting, we must take risks and step out of our comfort zone. I thought about the things I have done (e.g., moving to China and starting my business) that have contributed the most to making my life meaningful and added value to others, and they came out of deep contemplation and taking risks.

Next, the notion that doing only what we like is the secret to having a fulfilling life is so entrenched in Western psychology that it was refreshing to read otherwise:

“Nothing in life is more satisfying, more masterful, than to be able to change our likes and dislikes when we need to. In fact, anyone who has mastered this skill has mastered life, and anyone who has not learned to overcome likes and dislikes is a victim of life.” (Krech, Gregg. The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology (p. 113).

Besides, liking something doesn’t necessary mean it will motivate you to take action. I love my job yet I struggle to do the administrative side of it, in fact, I will put it off for as long as possible. So how do I not let my dislikes get in the way of doing even if I have accepted them as Morita therapy suggests? The book says I must find how to go round them. For example, if you hate to exercise and find it boring but have accepted for your health you have to do it, you could listen to podcast or audio books while doing it or hire a personal trainer as a way round your aversion to it. A crucial point to note according to the book is the ‘impermanence’ of our feelings, they come and go regardless of whether there are positive or negative. Why be ruled by them?

So, you have figured how to get round your emotions but you still can’t bring yourself to actually start, what to do? The author introduces the concept of ‘momentum’, expanding on the kaizen approach and borrowing from Newton’s first law of physics. You start by taking a very small step to get in motion, as “an object in motion stays in motion”. Now that you have momentum, you continue to take more small steps to keep moving.

Having momentum doesn’t guarantee you will continue in motion as there will always be forces both external (e.g. criticism, and distraction from social media) and internal (fear, low self-esteem, love etc.) working against you. How do you deal with them? Imagine you are working on a novel, no matter how many paragraphs you write each day over months and even years, you just can’t seem finish it; Worse still, your editor and close friends hate the parts you’ve shown them. You feel completely dejected and unable to proceed. In such circumstances the book gave a couple of suggestions. First, to focus less on the goal of writing a novel and it being a best-seller as outcomes are uncontrollable. You can’t control whether your editor will love your novel or that it will be a number one best-seller. Best to concentrate on your effort, to ensure that every time you sit down to write, you give it  your all. Secondly, instead of feeling sorry for yourself and dreading having to re-write, it recommends thinking and saying “I get to” to do it over again. Telling yourself you get to do something that you have to or must do can make it seem like it is a blessing and much less of a chore.

I have the habit of making task lists, and they are never completed regardless of what fancy app or paper I use. Seeing the uncompleted tasks always make me feel inadequate and lazy. The book offers comfort and a suggestion to dealing with to-do lists inefficacy.

“If you were to judge your tasks by how much attention and emotional investment they get, you would think that only those things that are not yet done are of any importance. There is something horribly out of balance in this. Through force of repetition, this habit deludes us into seeing the deficits and scarcities in our lives more easily than the accomplishments and resources. It distorts and undermines our motivation because the future never really comes and we don’t adequately internalize our completed work. I truly believe that the message we get, deep inside, is that only the unfinished is important.” (Krech, Gregg. The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology (p. 163).

Now I spend more time contemplating my completed tasks, which fills me with some sense of accomplishment and motivation to tackle more.

Has this book helped me be better at taking action?

Yes! I agonize less about doing tasks I dislike. Applying the principles learnt in this book has helped me complete an important administrative task I had put off for months. Whenever I dread starting a piece of work such as writing which I find really hard (hence my dislike of it), I tell myself “Wow, I get to solve the maze of my mind with words”. I start with a tiny step, pick a word and write a sentence with it, to get momentum, from there more sentences flow.  In the spirit of Kaizen, I do this regularly, and I’m now at a place where starting to write is less arduous, and I’ve come to appreciate writing as a powerful thinking tool.

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