Over on my Instagram account this past week, I posted a couple of infographics about mental flexibility and wanted to write in a bit more depth about the topic here.

Although he has been greatly misquoted on this, Darwin wrote and spoke about the value of being adaptable to change, “according to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

Megginson, ‘Lessons from Europe for American Business’, Southwestern Social Science Quarterly (1963) 44(1): 3-13, at p. 4.

Adaptability to change in the modern world naturally includes mental flexibility.
It is natural that whenever someone mentions flexibility, one can think of people or objects being able to stretch or perform yoga. It tends to be less common to think that it can indeed be applied to our thoughts and our cognitive abilities as well.

The notion here is that the mind is like a muscle; the more we stretch it, the more flexible it tends to become. We can always try to foster a flexible mindset to help ourselves to be mentally, emotionally and physically healthier.

Mental Flexibility can refer to our capacity to deal with multiple tasks at once or to easily let go of one task and engage in another. And well, multitasking or the concept of mental flexibility does not always seem that appealing; however, individuals who tend to be cognitively flexible can learn really quickly, solve problems more innovatively and adapt to new, different situations more efficiently and effectively. Thus, we can argue that mental or cognitive flexibility can be a really significant tool in a wide range of environments and settings.

A report published by the World Economic Forum in 2016 looked into the future of employment across nine different industries present in the 15 largest economies of the world. According to this report, employers in the future will continue placing increased emphasis on hiring individuals with cognitive abilities like innovativeness and adaptability.

How to Be More Flexible Cognitively?

Through a little practise and awareness regarding the concept of mental flexibility, we can live a more innovative, satisfied and more resilient lifestyle –by being able to develop a more agile mind.

As Albert Einstein also said,” The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”.

Undoubtedly, Mental flexibility refers to one’s personal adjustability to change our thought patterns such that they are able to react to certain circumstances in less forceful ways rather than in more flexible and creative ways. The rise of social media algorithms for example, tends to ensure our thinking patterns, thoughts and opinions get reinforced and confirmed and we tend not to question our biases and rigid thinking habits. Mental flexibility requires us to be aware of how we think, and to be prepared to shift those thought patterns on occasions.

I don’t think anyone can deny the rising significance of being mentally or cognitively flexible. It is indeed a great way to flourish and develop yourself in all environments and to be able to adapt to new demands. One of the most sought after, and therefore most suitable ways to make yourself more flexible cognitively is by exposing yourself to many new ideas and experiences. There are different ways of doing different things, and they can really help you in this quest (should you choose to accept it!). Here are a bunch of ways that will help you start on this journey of mental flexibility.

1.    Change Your Daily Routine

The first step you can take to develop yourself as an individual with mental flexibility is to change your routine. Yes, start by doing the very basic things in your life a little differently. For example, try changing the travel route if you are more used to taking the same route to work every, and have been doing so for a couple of months or even years. Maybe this time, take a longer route, or maybe a shorter route you were unaware of. If you usually travel by car, try travelling by bus or tube instead.

Similarly, if you are more accustomed to running or taking a simple stroll in the park every day, try by perhaps going to the gym instead and trying out a new, more extensive workout routine – if not for very long, then at least a day or two.

If you try to stay open to new ways of doing different things – the very basic things in your life – you can really go a long way in developing yourself as a mentally flexible individual.

Sometimes even the smallest of changes that may seem trivial such as trying to read a book rather than painting or trying a new sitting spot in your class, can prove useful in strengthening new neural pathways; Leading to more mental flexibility.

2.    Explore the Unknown

Now ‘Exploring the Unknown’ can mean anything. And do not worry! You are not expected to go looking for some hidden treasure or venture into a forbidden forest! Instead, I mean trying out new skills or experiences that you were less aware of (or unaware of previously). Something that can really be ‘out of the ordinary’ for you. Whenever you try experiencing something out of the ordinary or try to learn something new, the brain tends to create new synaptic connections. Thus, we can argue that these new ‘experiences’ trigger the release of dopamine, a chemical that not only improves memory and learning but also tends to increase your motivation towards something.

Thus, going out of the way and overcoming some apprehension (for example) to try out something novel can often really prove fruitful.

And yes, when we say ‘Explore the Unknown’ or talk of trying out new things, this could include travelling to new places.  This could also involve linguistic skills such as learning a new language, joining a new club, learingn to play a new musical instrument or trying out a new genre of books you may have hesitated reading for so long.

According to Harvard Business Review, taking time to learn new skills can really help one develop feelings of competence and achievement too. It helps us communicate with our subconscious pursuit for growth and development. This enables us to develop and improve physically and mentally by helping us escape the repetitive cycle of fixed capabilities.

3.    Try To Think Creatively

One other method that has proven really fruitful in helping individuals build themselves as cognitively flexible is by trying to think unconventionally. Practise divergent thinking and try to transition your thoughts from the ordinary pattern to a more creative pattern.

According to a study conducted by a Psychologist, Dr Robert Steinberg, it is shown that when students are taught to think creatively and are taught to engage in both practical and innovative thought patterns, they are able to not only effectively improve their grades but are also able to apply the knowledge they learnt in one subject area, to other more diverse and unrelated subject areas.

Divergent thinking, or trying to force yourself to think creatively, usually implies that you think in terms of unlimited possibilities, in a sudden and spontaneous way such that your train of thoughts knows no restraint.

Read this article for more on this topic: Creativity: 8 Brilliant Ways To Increase Yours.

4.    Do Not Try To Keep Things Too Easy For Yourself

We know that with the advent of modern technology such as apps for everything and anything, our lives have definitely been made easier. Some of the things that make lives easier are not the best way for us to develop cognitive flexibility – they can lead us to thinking lazily or not at all.

It has constantly been proven scientifically that introducing undesirable difficulties in the learning and growing process and even normal daily activities can sharpen your mind and enable you to learn through new experiences – further strengthening the argument in the second point here in this article.

An example of not making things easier for yourself and introducing undesirable difficulties is not using google maps or a GPS to try to find your way around an unknown neighbourhood. Or, for example, instead of trying to do maths by using a calculator, you can always grab a pen and paper and try solving the problem the old way!

5.    Come Out of Your Comfort Zone To Socialise

One great way to develop mental flexibility is by meeting new people from different walks of life. This is because such socialisation can introduce you to new perspectives and viewpoints, even contrasting perspectives that you may not be very happy to listen to. Therefore, it can enable you to be less rigid in your thinking process, making you more acceptable of the way that things are, rather than a constant urge to make others conform to your mode of thinking. You get to learn the idea of relativism, that is, your way of thinking, or your perspective or even your culture, for example, is the only way, and definitely not the best and perfect way of doing something.

Research has shown that people who encounter different situations tend to challenge their ideas about what is right and wrong are more likely to develop a greater tendency for cognitive flexibility. One such study found that college students in particular who had previously been or during the course of their learning, been exposed to new ways of thinking i.e. diversity and cultural differences, were more likely to develop and reach an advanced stage of maturity and even moral thinking.

Therefore, put effort into meeting new people, people outside your usual social circles, people from different cultures, different groups on the internet or even various academic, professional or volunteering groups.

6.    Try Challenging Your Moral Standards

It has been proven scientifically that seeking out new experiences (mentioned in a previous point of the article) in ways that can really challenge and test your morals or introduce you to a new variety of beliefs, values, and customs can help you develop a better understanding of various differences that exist cross-culturally. This can, in turn, help you become more flexible in your mental/cognitive abilities.

Even if you don’t want to agree with someone’s perspective or point of view, your ability to adjust flexibly can enable you to see things from the other’s perspective. For example, it may enable you to see and understand how and why someone sees something the way it is. Thereby helping you understand their point of view without necessarily forcing you to accept their perspective or narrative as right!

This will definitely make it easier for you to communicate with different people, face and resolve conflicts, and even help you mould your thinking patterns and styles. You can respond to different situations in different, more effective ways.

At times, simple reading on a subject, such as on social dilemmas, can help you analyse them more critically and adapt or channel your thinking according to various circumstances or tasks.

It can be important to understand that the more you challenge yourself and go deeper into doing new, different things in diverse, more challenging or difficult ways, you tend to engage with new people and encounter new experiences. This all ultimately helps you develop more flexible thinking: it helps you become mentally flexible.

Final Word

Thus, in conclusion, it can be argued that mental agility i.e. mental flexibility is the key to success in this world of work, where things change every now and then, and nothing tends to remain constant. Open-mindedness and adaptability to change have repeatedly been reported as crucial in your journey to success in a fast evolving world. So, why not try and become more responsive, agile and resilient to the changing nature of today’s modern world? One way to do that is by striving to become a mentally flexible individual. This article has summarised a few points that will help you begin this journey.

Brian Tracey one said; “ Be clear about your goal but be flexible about the process of achieving it.”

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