Source: Image by SLeClaire, pixabay.
Can You Be Flexible?
“Go with the flow.” This simple motto sounds easy to follow, doesn’t it? But I’ve never found it to be easy. I’m one of those people who prefers helpful routines and habits.
I even consider my routines liberating, not confining. For example, I follow the same pleasant work routine, Monday through Friday, with minimal variation. I even wrote a book* about habits and routines, so I’ve lived my ideas in more ways than one.
This preference for “consistent daily routines as opposed to more spontaneity is part of temperament,” wrote Psychology Today blogger Alice Boyes in her new book, Stress-Free Productivity, And routines have numerous advantages. Because you follow them on automatic pilot, you need less willpower, enabling you to be consistently productive, she points out.
That’s because habits, once established, can be performed on automatic pilot, so they require less self-control and use up less of your brainpower.
And yet habits alone might not be enough to guide you toward productive work—work that is meaningful to you or others. As Boyes notes, too much routine can sometimes crowd out novel experiences that can stimulate creative thinking. It can also lead to a mental rigidity that keeps you from refreshing yourself with what I call “the 3 Rs:” rest, recreation, and relationships.
So lately, I’ve opened myself to responding to life with more mental flexibility. Surprisingly, I’m getting a lot of satisfaction from pivoting (gracefully, I hope) from what I thought I would do to something different.
Flexibility is particularly useful when nothing is predictable—like a pandemic. I foresee that it will also help me bounce back from aging challenges. While I don’t intend to change my helpful routines, approaching life with a more open attitude does bring its rewards.
What Is Psychological Flexibility?
When I refer to “flexibility” in this blog, I am not referring to a complicated yoga position but to “mental flexibility” or “psychological flexibility,”–your ability to size up and adapt to an unexpected or difficult situation and take action while keeping your goals and values in mind.
Psychological flexibility is a core goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, from which I adapted my definition. ACT therapists consider mental flexibility a major route to a rich and meaningful life.
Below I’ll share key benefits of psychological flexibility, some from research and some from personal discoveries. Since I think you will want to benefit from greater mental flexibility, I’ll then offer ten suggestions for acquiring more of it.
The Benefits of Psychological Flexibility
Numerous research studies describe the benefits of flexibility, whether at work, in relationships, or in mental health. I’ll explain a few. With mental flexibility, you can do the following:
- Boost your brainpower. Mental challenges that require psychological flexibility can help clear away “brain fog,” according to the June 2022 Harvard Women’s Health Watch newsletter, and help compensate for declining memory. Even simple variations of your routine, such as taking a different path through the grocery store, can help your brain.
- Adapt to setbacks. According to this study, psychological flexibility helps you adapt to setbacks in your working environment.
- Reduce stress. Mental flexibility reduces stress. Knowing you have the power to pivot counters feeling overwhelmed, whereas “… people who are psychologically inflexible are more likely to experience distress than those who maintain a more open approach to life,” as noted in this blog by Susan Krauss Whitbourne.
- Get a burst of energy. Mental flexibility can be energizing. When you knock off a problem that’s suddenly popped up, you can’t help but feel stronger and more purposeful.
- Get creative, Mental flexibility adds to your creative problem-solving ability, as suggested by Boyes. You could argue that mental flexibility IS creative problem-solving. In addition, when you see that there are many paths to the same goal, you are more likely to find one that leads to your destination.
- Help your relationships, Mental flexibility contributes to better relationships in numerous ways—making time for others, being able to compromise, and seeing another person’s point of view, for three.
Ten Suggestions for More Psychological Flexibility
Everyone changes in their own way, so pick and choose among the suggestions below. Some will work for you; others might not fit your personality. Suggestions:
- Decide that you want to approach life with a more open mind. Research strongly suggests that the first step toward successful change is deciding what you want to change, simple as that may sound.
- Decide why you want to change. To find your most compelling reasons for change, you could review the benefits above. Or just take a shortcut and try suggestion three below.
- Instead of thinking of obstacles as “problems,” tell yourself they are “opportunities” or “challenges.” This simple tweak to your self-talk creates a more flexible outlook instantly.
- Reframe flexibility in a way that jibes with your values. For example, I value “creativity,” so thinking of problems and setbacks as creative challenges reframes the situation positively for me.
- Make it fun. Tell yourself, “It’s not an inconvenience; it’s a surprise.”
- Do the opposite of what you planned. Making a left turn onto a busy four-lane road is impossible at times. One day I decided to turn right instead and either take a different route or double back. This novel experience seemed to delight my brain—I found myself smiling with glee. I still get a big kick out of this small tweak to my usual driving habits. Along the same lines, I’ve noticed that taking my usual walk, but in reverse, also stimulates my brain because I notice a whole new set of details.
- Stop working when your brain gets tied up in knots. Instead of doggedly continuing with your project, Boyes suggests this research-backed tip: Take a break, even for five minutes. Your brain will continue to work in the background and is more likely to develop a creative solution. (Other reasons to take a break here.)
- Apology. Yes, saying a sincere “I’m sorry” or “I was wrong” is a great way to cultivate mental flexibility. When you’ve put your foot in your mouth and can skillfully remove it, you are flexible indeed.
- Use encouraging self-talk. Notice when you’ve been flexible, and give yourself an inner compliment.
- Get support. Finding someone to help you with a problem can expand your mindset. You’ll learn a different point of view.
Remember, you don’t have to choose between routine or flexibility. It’s not an either-or question. Rather, find the right mix of routine and flexibility for you. If you have routines that help you achieve your goals, keep them going; use your flexible mental outlook to adapt to change.
Bottom line: Even if, like me, you generally prefer routines, knowing that you can be psychologically flexible when necessary is both reassuring and empowering.
© Meg Selig, 2022. All rights reserved.
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