5 powerful productivity tips I learned in Japan transformed my life and my business

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  • Adrian Shepherd is a British productivity consultant who's lived and worked in Japan for the past 24 years.
  • Over that time, he's picked up some productivity and stress-management habits that have made all the difference in his work and life.
  • For one thing, he's learned to buy into the Japanese concept of kaizen, which means "constant improvement" and can be applied to all aspects of life and work.

For the past 24 years, I've been lucky enough to call Japan my home.

What I've learned over that time is that things are different here. I've worked with executives from multi-national corporations such as Panasonic, Komatsu, and Takeda to name a few and found that their approach to business can be quite counter-intuitive for those who have never been to Japan.

But it's not just how business is conducted; whether we're talking about their diet or their houses, nothing is like it is in the West.

With regards to productivity, many people are very familiar with the techniques such as the Pomodoro Method or Parkinson's Law and such books as David Allen's "Getting Things Done," but Japan taught me to look at it at a deeper level.

Here are five powerful productivity tips I learned from living and working with the Japanese people that helped me transform how I live my life and run my business.

1. I understand kaizen

Kaizen in Japanese means "constant improvement." It's the reason Japanese car manufacturers were able to dominate the industry for years. Kaizen is the compound effect in action. A 1% improvement might not seem like much, but over time, the change can be dramatic.

This philosophy permeates all different walks of life here. Jiro Ono, the Master Sushi Chef, put it this way: "I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is."

2. I've learned attention to detail

It's hard not to notice just how much Japanese people care about details when you're traveling around Japan. The exquisite wrapping, the neatness, the organization, the food, it's on whole different level.

"Care" is the best word I can use to describe it. Japanese people care about the little things. All the extra work can be time-consuming, but the goodwill it brings more than pays for itself over time. "It's not that important" isn't the attitude Japanese people have in their business - everything matters.

Read More: I'm British, and I experienced the biggest culture shock when I started working in the US

3. I see food as fuel

Dinner in Japan isn't served, it's presented. Guests visiting Japanese houses are often surprised to find five or six dishes in front of them for dinner. Miso soup and rice are a given. Then two or three different vegetables are served on the side, plus fish and meat.

Despite all the different dishes, you rarely leave the table feeling full. There is a Japanese kotowaza, or proverb, that says, "He who has his stomach full only 80% will not need a doctor." The point is not to eat to be full but to be satisfied.

What's more is by restricting our calorie intake, we can extend our lives. Personally, the Japanese diet has had a profound effect on my health. I almost never have a cold anymore and have more energy than I did in my 20s.

4. Baths transform my sleep

Health should never be overlooked when discussing productivity. As my mentor Jim Rohn used to say, "Some people don't do well because they don't feel well." Like most people in the US, I used to just jump in the shower before work, but here in Japan, nearly everyone takes a bath before going to sleep.

I resisted it for years, but finally relented and I'll never go back. I used to spend five minutes in the shower waking myself up. Now, it's a daily ritual. I wash myself first, then soak in the bath at a preprogrammed temperature for 15 minutes at a minimum. Stress melts away.

Considering how hard our body works for us, relaxing in a nice warm bath is the perfect way to end the day. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, "Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity."

Ever since I switched over to baths, I sleep like an angel and reap the benefits.

Read More: A Chinese mother raising her son in the US reveals the biggest differences between American and Chinese parenting

5. Tidying up isn't just for Marie Kondo

In cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, it's not uncommon for people to have apartments of 20 square meters or smaller. Space is limited here, so people need to think carefully about what they buy. It's no wonder that Marie Kondo became a cultural phenomenon with her best-selling book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up."

adrian shepherdAdrian Shepherd.Courtesy of Adrian Shepherd

But it's not just on the individual level - companies are notorious for keeping many unnecessary items. Training material that is outdated and files of clients from years ago are piled high in many offices.

Applying Kondo's philosophy, I have clients either throw away or digitize material in order to declutter their workspace.

Freeing up space is liberating, and once done can provide a big boost in productivity.

Adrian Shepherd started his career as an ESL teacher in Japan, but today focuses on consulting with individuals and companies on productivity.

His background in education helped him develop The One-Bite Time Management System (TMS), a revolutionary new system based entirely around simplicity: small bites that people can digest easily. Adrian Shepherd is based in Osaka, Japan.

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