Many people hear me discuss the systems and habits approach to improvement and think that must mean a very rigid, disciplined approach. But that is not correct. In reality the systems and habits approach is incredibly flexible.
Flexibility is important. When software engineers started to realize the traditional, structured approach to project management led to failure, they came up with Agile Project Management. They learned that by having small iterations it doesn’t lock you in like a complex project plan does.
But this is a difficult concept for most people. Most people see a politician change their position on an issue and assume that means weakness. But we all should strive to continue to learn and improve. That means that we will change our opinion from time to time based on new information.
When people think of rigid discipline they often think of the military. They envision rows of soldiers doing exactly what they are told. They think of an inflexible mind that drives towards perfection. But that isn’t true.
In Unbreakable, A Navy SEAL’s Way of Life, author and Navy SEAL Thom Shea says, “In my time teaching boys to grow into SEALs, I’ve learned there’s something inside a man far more in need of training, far more valuable for him to learn, than any tactic or new fitness technique. After teaching young men in training to overcome impossible conditions, and watching them endure terrible pain, I noticed the key wasn’t how hard the man was, but how malleable his mind was – how he harnessed his thoughts before, during, and after these times of hell.”
But in our daily lives we probably don’t attribute flexibility and a malleable mind with strength. In fact, we likely assume that means weakness.
In working to improve, we certainly have to remain disciplined and consistent enough to form a new habit, but we also have to avoid taking too rigid of a position in our mind.
One way to do that is through iteration. Just as Agile Project Management harnessed this tool to gain flexibility in software projects, we can use this to gain flexibility in our own personal quest to improve.
Instead of setting some massive goal and then detailing all of the things that you need to do to succeed, start by setting the direction that you want to go and then commit to doing small things that will help move you in that direction.
This can be a great way to proceed because it allows you to start small and work through different challenges as you go. You will learn as you go and then you can use this new knowledge to adjust the path you are on.
You can add more to your routine or adjust where you focus. You can try new techniques and play with new ideas that might help you along the way.
But the key is that if you are trying to build a new habit, don’t keep jumping around from idea to idea without putting in the necessary repetition to truly build an automated behavior.
Over time you will start to become rigid in some areas but you can still remain flexible and experience the value of having a malleable mind, instead of a rigid mind that can’t adjust to new information.