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Cognitive Flexibility: What is it, and 3 Ways to Improve It

Cognitive Flexibility helps self-esteem bloom. Illustration of woman in a tub with flowers blooming from her head

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt our thinking and behaviour in response to our environment. It refers to our ability to look at things from different perspectives and come up with novel solutions to tasks or problems.

Let’s say you’re faced with a challenge at work that you’ve been faced with before. You have a tried-and-true solution, but your boss wants a different approach. Your gut instinct is probably to go with what’s been proven to be effective, right? But with cognitive flexibility, you can come up with a different kind of solution (and maybe even develop an all-new, better approach).

Cognitive flexibility is surprisingly underdeveloped in human beings. Many other species show signs of high levels of flexible cognition. Capuchin monkeys have been known to display master levels of cognitive flexibility.

Humans, on the other hand, hold on much more tightly to their comfort zones. We know what works for us, what makes us comfortable, and we’re not always open to change. The popular mantras of startup and tech geniuses like Mark Zuckerburg (“move fast and break things”) generated a lot of innovation in certain industries, but that kind of thinking doesn’t naturally transfer to most human behavior. We often crave familiarity, and doing things differently means teaching ourselves to endure anxiety, discomfort, and uncertainty. But practice improves our resilience, and it's possible to develop cognitive flexibility.


So how can you improve your cognitive flexibility?

1. Listen to other peoples' stories Discuss different topics and perspectives with other people. If someone is knowledgeable about something you know little about, ask them about it. Listen to people. Be open to hearing things that may be completely new or different for you. You also don’t have to agree with what you hear. Just take in new information and give yourself practice absorbing new ideas. (And if you’re looking for a place to start connecting with others, join the Vox Intra community! It’s a safe space to discuss different topics, get advice, and support one another).

  • 2. Shake up your routine Routines can be comforting. They provide structure to our lives, can increase our discipline, and impact our level of productivity...But every once in awhile, try to break out of your routine in small ways. Cook a new dish, go to a different park for a run, or plan a trip to a new place. Balance routine with routinely shaking things up to make your ability to cope with change a regular habit. You may feel stress or anxiety initially, but showing yourself that you can try new things develops your confidence, self-esteem, and self-trust.

  • 3. Consider the “rules” in your life Throughout our lives, we may unconsciously internalize a lot of messages from family, society, friends, and peer groups. We pick up a lot of “rules” to live by that often dictate how we should feel, think, or behave, such as:

     

    • I’m not a good person if I don’t believe in God/a higher power
    • I will always be alone
    • If I’m not a success, I’m a failure
    • I’m unlovable if I’m not being "good"
    • I’m not allowed to have friends of the opposite sex
    • If I show how I feel, I'll be abandoned
  • Consider if any of the rules in your life prevent you from thinking flexibly. What are some rules that you think may be holding you back? Where do you think you first learned them? Rigidity in thinking can be a result of many things, and its intention is usually to cope, understand, or protect you from pain. Ask yourself what your rules are "protecting" you from? Loneliness? Shame? Guilt? Rejection? Disapproval?

  • What are the benefits of improving cognitive flexibility?

    Flexible cognition encourages growth and improves your ability to manage stress - sudden challenges at work, relationship conflicts, and decision-making can all have a less intense impact on you if you have evidence that you’re able to roll with the punches and whatever comes your way.

    Pushing ourselves to approach things differently can lead to immense self-discovery and growth. Nothing changes if your behavior doesn’t change. Take these small steps to improve your cognitive flexibility and reap the benefits with time.

    Also on the Blog: 5 Ways to Deal with Unhealthy, Excessive Guilt

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