How’s your list of goals/commitments/intentions looking for 2013? You know the basics of goal-setting: make them specific, measurable, and time-bound. So “have sex w/ someone new, combined blood alcohol level <0.21, by January 31” instead of “get laid.”

But these kinds of outcome-based goals can have negative side effects. The Harvard Business School authors of Goals Gone Wild looked into the lying, cheating, backstabbing, frustration, and general pissiness prevalent in goal-driven companies and concluded that “the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated while systematic harm has been largely ignored.”

Local case in point: many police departments have productivity goals for their officers, measured by the number of stops, citations and arrests made per week. You can’t get much more specific, measurable and time-bound than that.  Rather than making people any safer, though, what those policing goals produce are racially disproportionate stop-and-frisks and tons of junk arrests, which lead to mass incarceration, the destruction of communities, and the collapse of civilization. Not a good look.

When it comes to fitness, outcome-based goals can be (nearly) as counterproductive. The number one goal of Americans every year – “lose weight” – becomes in its specific, measurable, time-bound form “lose 10 pounds by January 31.” It’s a formula that makes manufacturers of weight-loss supplements wealthy, and millions of people very unhappy. Not only does the goal focus you on a number that has almost no correlation to fitness, the specificity of “10 pounds by January 31” encourages you to do things that make you less healthy in the long run. Swallowing hoodia-bitter orange-metatonin pills in your sauna suit while rocking your Skeecher Shape-Ups, for example. Not a good look.

That said, there’s something quite lovely about setting goals at the start of the year. It’s one of the only times we take a long pause to think about what’s important, see where you want to go, and strategize about how to get there. Done en masse in the beginning of each year, it’s our magnificent, national exercise in fantastic hopefulness.

So is there a way to get the good that comes from setting outcome-based goals while avoiding all the counterproductive lying, cheating, frustration, and general pissiness that comes along for the ride?

There is. It’s the most excellent concept of kaizen. Kaizen got a lot of attention as a management philosophy in the 1980’s as Toyota and Honda started destroying Ford and Chevy. Kaizen is usually translated as “small continuous improvement” and given some orientalist hoo-ha status as an ancient Japanese philosophy [cue gong and a deep bow]. Under Kaizen’s management strategy, assembly line workers are asked to make suggestions on how to make whatever small improvements they see are possible in their part of the line. A drop of sealant before a bolt goes in, for example. In this way, the story goes, Japanese car makers started making better and better cars, until in 2006, the Japanese automakers swept its U.S. rivals and nailed down all 10 top picks in the Consumer Reports ratings.

Hoo-ha aside, kaizen/găi shàn is actually Chinese, and simply means “improvement.” It can be small and/or continuous if you’d like, but it’s not anything more than making an improvement.

And it’s nothing less. What makes a  kaizen/găi shàn process better than goal-setting is that making an improvement is different – more difficult and more satisfying – than just completing a task.

Consider the burpee. Our last workout included three sets of 7 burpees. One way to think of the burpees is as a task to be completed. You do it in order to get to the next thing. Another way of thinking about burpees, though, is to understand that each set of seven – in fact, every single one – is an opportunity to improve your burpee. Is there a more efficient way to get down into a pushup? Can you go down further on the pushup? Can you flow more smoothly from one to the next? That’s kaizen/găi shàn.

What you can do with burpees, you can do with life. To replace our traditional new years goal-making with a kaizen/găi shàn process, start with a list of 3-5 areas you want to pay attention to in the upcoming year. They can be broad areas (health, wealth and happiness, for example) or more tuned into what you’re really after.

For each focus area, set out a few conditions of satisfaction. Borrowed from generative somatics, a condition of satisfaction is the answer to the question, “How do you know the thing’s been done, and done well?” One of the problems with insisting on measurable goals is that they tend to focus attention on a number (100 pushups in 4 minutes; 1000 pageviews a week; 10,000 minutes learning Spanish), which in turn narrows your attention in a way that is not optimal to long term improvement. Taking the time to articulate some conditions of satisfaction, on the other hand, gives you broader latitude. For example, if one of your areas of attention is to improve the quality of your interpersonal relationships, what kind of feedback would people be giving you that would let you know that’s happened?

Once you start writing out your conditions of satisfaction, you’ll notice immediately how important it is to have people around who can give you good feedback. This is important! For most areas worth paying attention to, having a person who can give good feedback is a thousand times better than having a target number.  Put a person’s name next to your conditions of satisfaction and let them know you’re going to tap them for feedback.

After you have the conditions of satisfaction spelled out, then we get busy. Think of the crow’s nest on top of a whaleboat’s main mast, where the sailor stands scanning the horizon for whales. That sailor is you. The ocean is those 3-5 areas you’re paying special attention to this year. The whales are the opportunities for improvement in those areas. Have I lost you yet? Keep reading, I will.

This is the crux of kaizen/găi shàn. What you’re doing, constantly, is scanning for ways to improve. This is you:

crow's nest

And what you’re doing is looking for ways to improve within your area of attention. Let’s say one of the areas you want to pay exquisite attention to this year is your fitness. What are your conditions of satisfaction? Once you have those spelled out, climb up into the crow’s nest, pull out your spyglass, and scan the horizon, asking, How can I get better?

Now, this can get tiring. Just ask Captain Ahab. What you’re not doing is scanning for tasks that you can do to improve. Trying to make improvements task by task will leave you exhausted and eating a pint of strawberry ice cream between puffs of your cigarette. What you’re scanning for are practices you can put into place that will result in improvement: things you can do on the regular that become habit. When the autoworker on the Toyota line saw that it would improve the car just a little tiny bit by putting down a drop of sealant before the bolt went in, that change had to be incorporated in a way that made it automatic, part of the line. If you’re relying on vigilance and willpower to make changes task by task, you’re sunk. If you’re looking for ways to create habits, on the other hand, you’re golden.

Once something becomes a habit, this frees you up to scan for some other way to improve in this area. This is kaizen/găi shàn.

In kaizen/găi shàn terms, queerfit is a practice that may be useful if you decide you want to pay attention to improving their fitness in 2013. It’s also a practice that may pop up for you if you’re scanning for ways to build community, develop self-confidence, or improve your  relationship to your body. If you’re a little afraid of queerfit, well, that’s a sign it’s a good whale to chase.

It will be 41 degrees tomorrow morning at 10:00, with no wind. Bundle up, pull on some gloves, and come on. Can’t wait – see you tomorrow!