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Slow progress helps to remain flexible when obstacles get in the way

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Slow progress helps to remain flexible when obstacles get in the way

Scott Miker

One of the advantages of taking the slow, systematic approach towards improvement is that it allows for flexibility.  By utilizing the principles of systems and habits we can account for life’s natural ebbs and flows. 

Flexibility is very important because no matter how much planning we do, there will be things that change.  Unexpected obstacles and competing priorities make it difficult if we have too rigid of an approach.

Years ago I started an exercise routine.  I was planning on running several miles a day to start to get in shape.  I hadn’t exercised in years at this point and was noticing that my health was starting to suffer.

But I really didn’t want to work out.  I hated to run but I knew that I had to start to do something. 

So I set out, motivated, to tackle this new challenge.  The first day I ran and felt pretty good afterwards.  I made a challenge to myself to do a little more each day.  This way I would add more and more until I started to see improvement in my health.

The second day was much harder than the first and I barely made it through the run.  The third day I forced myself to run and ran further than I had previously.  I decided that tomorrow I would outdo today.

But then I hit a wall.  I woke up sore and had a longer shift at work.  My allergies were starting to bother me and I didn’t get a good night sleep.  With all of these obstacles I decided that there was no way I could outdo the day before.  So I didn’t do anything.

But the next day more obstacles came up and I put off running again.  The next thing I realized it was several days later and I just couldn’t get the motivation to get back to it.

My attempt to get healthy lasted about 3 days.  Then weeks went by until the guilt piled up and I decided to try it again.  I did this over and over for a few years, becoming more and more frustrated and less healthy as time went on. 

For me I could get started but I just couldn’t keep going.  To make any sort of real improvement it would take months of exercise, not 3 days.  The key wasn’t the intensity of the workout; it was simply the continuation of a workout.

So I began to shift my mindset.  I stopped trying to challenge myself and outdo the day before.  I stopped trying to do a normal workout right away.  I simply tried to do something consistently every day. 

For me it was the bike.  When the weather was nice I would bike outside.  When it was cold and rainy I would use the exercise bike at home.  I wasn’t biking in any sort of training or professional way.  I was simply taking a leisurely bike ride.  While it wasn’t enough initially to improve my health much it did have a couple of benefits.

First was that it was building my confidence.  I felt good about the fact that I exercised every day for weeks straight.  I knew I could keep going because it was easy and fun.

Second it started to become automatic.  I would wake up and exercise and wouldn’t really think about it much.  I wouldn’t have to guilt myself to death or motivate myself.  I would simply go do it.

Along with being automatic it was forming a habit.  At one point I was going to take a day off.  I was going out with some friends the night before and felt I deserved a break.  But I woke up the next day and was on the bike before I remembered that I was going to take the day off!

Third I did actually see improvement in my health.  I lost a little bit of weight.  I had more energy throughout the day, especially in the morning.  The motivation of knowing I was making progress convinced me to take a very similar approach with other areas of my health such as nutrition. 

I assumed this shift was just something I stumbled upon.  But the more I researched systems, habits, behavioral psychology, goal setting, success etc. the more I realized that there were principles that crossed over many different areas. 

Now I refer to this process of doing something small consistently as Setting the Minimum.  Basically I set a very small daily process goal.  In this case it would be to exercise for 10 minutes a day.  Each day, after the 10 minutes I could do more if I wanted to but I could also stop.

I would keep this minimum going for a long time.  Even if I consistently did 20-30 minutes each time, I would still use the 10-minute minimum to make it easy to get started in the morning.  Eventually I would add time or add additional exercises but would be cautious to make sure this never caused me to skip days. 

I have used this technique to exercise consistently now for about 10 years.  I have added to the minimum and reduced the minimum.  I have added strength exercises and focused on various aspects of my workout to improve my strength or flexibility. 

The benefit to me is that I went from not being able to exercise for more than 2-3 days to doing it consistently for 10 years.  It doesn’t mean I can bench press 400 lbs or run a marathon but that has never been the goal.  What is does mean is that consistently every year my health is better than the previous year.

While this may seem like a rigid habit, it is actually very flexible.  Even if I miss a day or two it is easy to get back to it.  I recently took off some time because I was in the hospital for a few days with my wife for the birth of our second daughter.  But the day I went home it was very easy to jump on the exercise bike and get a quick workout in. 

This isn’t some magic way to get anything we want.  It isn’t an instant fix after years of neglect.  All it does it gets us to work on small incremental improvement rather than expecting instant or extreme results. 

It works in many areas of our lives.  Most of have 12 years of education.  We didn’t do that overnight.  We did that by consistently going to class and learning from first grade to high school graduation.  We did it by slowly learning more and accumulating more knowledge over a long period of time.

Many of us who work full time and save money for retirement in a 401k or other retirement savings account use this mindset all the time.  We know that we can’t wait until age 64 to start contributing.  So we set a small percentage of our paycheck to automatically go towards this account.  Over time the money invested and interest earned add up to enough for us to retire (hopefully!). 

In today’s fast paced world we can easily miss an easy way to reach many of our goals.  It may seem like hard work but when broken down to small steps and then formed into new positive habits we can remain flexible to overcome obstacles and continue to make progress towards success.  It may not be instant and it may not result in extreme success but it can result in significant improvement.