Are you flexible?

“No matter what twists and turns your life offers you, your ability to be adaptable and flexible will help you to stay open to all of the hidden gifts that difficulty may offer. ” –Mandy Ingber

Article contributed by Amy Sargent

The routine of habits

We are creatures of habit. Consider, for example, how you prepare your morning coffee each day. I’m guessing you go through the same exact steps, day by day, whether it’s stopping by your favorite local coffee shop and ordering that same drink you love, or whether you make your own, carefully measuring coffee grounds into your coffeemaker and adding the same amount of sweetener and creamer to your steaming mug.  Or, reflect on the route you take to work. Do you tend to turn down the same streets each day or change things up?

Oxford dictionary defines a habit as a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up. Habits often imply a refusal to flex. On the contrary, flexibility, or personal agility, is our ability to anticipate and respond rapidly and willingly to changing conditions.

Does your day-to-day life consist more of habits or agility?

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligence, but those most responsive to change.” — Charles Darwin

Habits in and of themselves are not a negative thing. They are our way of getting necessary tasks done with a minimal need for brain engagement. You most likely could write down the steps you take from when you wake up to when you taste that first sip of piping hot coffee without much effort.  And your route to work — you could draw the map in your sleep. Getting dressed for work, brushing your teeth, filling the car with fuel when the tank is low — all tasks that need to be done yet don’t take a lot of effort to figure out how to do them. You’ve been doing these for years. Forming a habit around these seemingly mundane tasks allow you to accomplish with minimal thinking.

A study was done at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to determine how much of our behavior is fueled by habits.  The researchers outfitted students with a box that monitored their activities throughout the day–sleeping, eating, walking, working, going to class, talking with friends, etc. They discovered that a whopping 90% of our daily activities follow predictable routines! And many of these routines are simply reactions to the world around us. John Bargh, psychologist at Yale University,  says this: “…most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices, but by mental processes put into motion by the environment.”

Many habits can lead to a healthier, happier lifestyle. Take for example, your routine to eat healthy food, to exercise every day, or to spend quiet time in mediation or self-reflection. Habits such as these enable you to live the life you want, whether it be to achieve a level of health, find peace of mind, or relieve stress.

Habits get us into trouble, however, when a need for change arises and we refuse to respond. Some habits lead to poor physical health, such as overeating. Some lead to a lack of connection, such as spending too much time staring at your cell phone. At work, a refusal to flex can lead to frustration when the new manager arrives, or an inability to work well with others if you’re tied to always doing things the way you want to.

Signs of personal agility

Not sure if you are flexible? Take this short quiz (adapted from the ISEI Coaching Toolkit developed by Dr. Laura Belsten) to find how you score in personal agility. Read each statement and determine how frequently you demonstrate the behavior, on a scale of 1 to 5 (1=Always, 2=Almost Always, 3=Occasionally, 4-Almost Never, 5=Never):

  1. I find it easy to operate out of my comfort zone.
  2. I am comfortable with change.
  3. It’s okay when things are ‘up in the air’.
  4. I readily embrace new ideas and concepts.
  5. I quickly make decisions and solve problems even when there’s not enough information.
  6. I shift gears quickly when changes arise.
  7. I don’t curse change nor do I let change put me in a bad mood.
  8. I like to learn new skills and new ways of doing things.
  9. I can take action without having the complete picture.
  10. I readily embrace shifting priorities.
  11. I am comfortable if I have to do things differently than they’ve always been done.
  12. Others view me as someone who is curious in new ways of doing things.
  13. I am comfortable working with people who are different from me in their thinking and problem-solving.
  14. I anticipate change and respond readily.
  15. I can juggle multiple demands with ease (and a smile).
  16. I am comfortable with risk and uncertainty.
  17. I tend to be an early adopter (of things like technology, new ideas, new procedures).
  18. I adjust quickly to the need for change even if the facts available to me are limited.
  19. I happily rearrange my schedule to make sure new priorities and deadlines are met.
  20. I am comfortable with chaos and complexity.

Total Score ________

If your score is:

1-20 = Your personal agility is high

21-40 = Your personal agility is moderately high

41-60 = Your personal agility is moderate

61-80 = Your personal agility has room for improvement

81-100 = your personal agility needs improvement

It’s about comfort

Why are some resistant to change, and instead want to cling to habits and old ways, even if those ways are no longer serving them?

Habits are comfortable, like a favorite pair of socks or a warm, cozy blanket. Carol Kinsey Goman, an executive coach and author of the book This Isn’t the Company I Joined: How to Lead in a Business Turned Upside Down,  writes this in an article entitled, The Effects of Change on the Brain:
Change jerks us out of this comfort zone by stimulating the prefrontal cortex, an energy-intensive section of the brain responsible for insight and impulse control. But the prefrontal cortex is also directly linked to the most primitive part of the brain, the amygdala (the brain’s fear circuitry, which in turn controls our “flight or fight” response). And when the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed with complex and unfamiliar concepts, the amygdala connection gets kicked into high gear. All of us are then subject to the physical and psychological disorientation and pain that can manifest in anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, fatigue or anger.” (http://www.sideroad.com/Leadership/change-effects-brain.html)

The thing is, change threatens to push us out of our comfort zone.  And we love our comfort zones! But personal agility is increasingly becoming a vital self-management skill. Change is inevitable. It occurs within all areas of our lives — our kids grow up and leave home, coworkers come and go, relationships shift, job descriptions mold into a new set of tasks, and our bodies — need we mention our bodies and the aging process?!  Instead of fighting the need to flex to ever-changing situations, it’s more advantageous to learn how to get comfortable with ambiguity, be adaptable, and shift gears when needed.

Where to start? 

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” — Charles Duhigg

Though change can be difficult, learning to flex and move in a new direction will help you navigate the ever-changing world around you.  Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Acknowledge and accept the normal human responses to change:  denial, resistance, exploration, and new beginnings. Think of a change you are currently being asked to navigate. Which phase are you experiencing? Have you gotten stuck there? Simply recognizing where you are in the process can help you see the need to move forward.
  • Recognize what is in your control, and what isn’t. Focus on the tasks you can control.  Note:  Other people and their behaviors are NOT something you can control!
  • Look for people who can support you during difficult transitions.  Find someone who’s been through something similar, or who has endured a tough time and made it to the other side.
  • Let go of your preconceived ideas about ‘the way things should be.’ Be open to new perspectives and be willing to try out new ideas.
  • Get your emotions in check.  Sometimes we allow our emotions to flood and create more drama around the change than necessary. Take note of how you are feeling, and why, and spend some time processing those feelings by journaling or talking to a coach or counselor.
  • “Try it, you’ll like it.”  Sometimes the best way to navigate change is to give it a try.  Take small steps in a new direction and try it on for size.  Look for the positives, noting opportunities that may arise with the shift.

“Success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react, and reinvent.” — Bill Gates

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