Being adaptable is essential to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world. In the last year, businesses have had to be extremely flexible to weather the COVID-19 crisis. Employers have had to embrace new technology to facilitate remote working, restaurants have been forced to turn into takeaways and many companies offer new services to cope with these tumultuous times.
Although we all like to think of ourselves as being adaptable and open to change, it can be easier said than done. But being an "elastic thinker" — something experts also refer to as cognitive flexibility — is what allows us to overcome unpredictable challenges and problems, no matter how difficult they seem.
“Those that have this skill can respond to situations in a flexible way, and challenge themselves to view problems from multiple perspectives in order to find the best way to overcome challenges,” says , an organisational psychologist and founder of .
“People that have the ability to be an elastic thinker can also move between different ideas quickly and can navigate unpredictable events effectively.”
Adaptability is often misunderstood. It doesn’t necessarily mean being able to flit from one thing to the next, but it is closely linked to resilience, perseverance and developing a sense of control. Being an elastic thinker is about sticking with something and problem-solving, while understanding and responding to change and adversity. As a consequence, you’ll find it easier to cope with setbacks.
Some people seem more naturally resilient, but research suggests being adaptable is something we can actively control and develop. In , a study led by Heather Rusch of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Nursing Research revealed two critically important factors that are associated with resilience in the face of adversity: Mastery and social support.
Mastery refers to how much people perceive themselves as having control and influence over life circumstances, which is very different to optimism or simply ‘looking on the bright side’. Social support, having a strong network of trusted people who provide support, is also key to building resilience.
So how can you train yourself to be more flexible, adaptable and resilient? Roberts says that knowing how important mental agility is for overcoming periods of difficulty and change, there are several ways to increase it within ourselves.
When faced with an issue, write down as many approaches as you can. “When something happens that requires you to rethink your path forward, focus on working through all possible ways of responding to the situation and put them on paper,” Roberts says. “Think not only about what you would do, but about how others might respond. Challenge yourself to write as many solutions as you can think of within 30 minutes. Doing this will flex your problem solving muscles and help you see options more clearly.”
Learning from past experiences can also be helpful, including where you could have done things differently.
“Look back at how you have responded to challenges in the past - this is probably something many of us have had plenty of practice with in 2020,” explains Roberts. “What did you do well and what could you do better in the future? Is there anything you would replicate or change about your reactions and behaviour? Write your thoughts down so that you can go back and look at your notes later.”
Being adaptable is also closely connected to being self-reflective because exercising introspection allows us to think more deeply about how we react to things. “Once a week as you’re working through challenges, take some time to reflect and jot down what has gone well, what hasn’t, and what you’d like to do in the future,” Roberts says.
“This shouldn’t take a long time - while the above is a greater reflection exercise, this should be simple, just a few lines focusing on the here and now. Putting pen to paper will help you understand the situation, boost your self-awareness, and visualise how you can improve.”
And finally, one of the best ways to be more adaptable and elastic in your thinking is to protect your mental energy. Few people have the capacity to react positively to adversity when they’re burned out, stressed and exhausted. Self-care doesn’t just mean taking a day off when you feel tired, but considering what you need to boost your energy throughout the day and how you can work it into your life.
“This will be individual to you - maybe it’s getting out for some exercise early every morning, taking a lunchtime nap, or relaxing every evening by watching a TV show or reading a good book,” Roberts says. “Some things might not always be in your control, but there are always small things you can do to inject an energy boost into your routine.”
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