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Cognitive Flexibility: What it is, and 5 Ways to Improve It
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Cognitive Flexibility: What it is, and 5 Ways to Improve It

[5 Minute Read]

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.

  • 2. Shake up your routine

  • Routines can be comforting and even necessary at times. 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 and depend on yourself through change 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?
  • 4. Challenge yourself to change up your usual answer to something

    We all get those "get to know you" questions from people. "What do you do? Where are you from?" And so on. Next time you get asked a question you've answered dozens of times before, challenge yourself to rephrase it a little! Think about how you can describe it a little differently (maybe even a little more honestly). Try to connect with your feelings or thoughts in that moment and (if it's appropriate), change up your answer a little.


    5. Recognize Black-and-White Thinking patterns

    Black and white thinking, also known as dichotomous or all-or-nothing thinking, involves perceiving situations in extremes with little room for nuance or gray areas. This cognitive pattern not only limits our problem-solving capabilities but also intensifies the impact of stress on our mental well-being. Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, can help you become more aware of your thought patterns. Regular self-reflection enables the identification of black and white thinking tendencies. By consciously questioning and reframing extreme thoughts, individuals can gradually shift towards a more balanced and nuanced perspective, reducing the impact of this cognitive distortion on stress levels.

    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.

    Want helpful prompts and guidance on your journey to self-discovery? See if our personal development card decks are right for you! Or read reviews from others on journeys like yours.


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