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Starting a new habit is like the beginning of a stream

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.  

Starting a new habit is like the beginning of a stream

Scott Miker

This spring we have seen a lot of rain combined with melting water in the Cleveland Ohio area. As I drive to work I pass areas that are flooded and areas where the water begins to flow.

A few areas seem to flood quickly, before the water can travel to lower land. Once it reaches a certain level, it will start to leak out from that area and move to lower land creating a sort of mini stream.

I have always looked to water for its ability to be incredibly soft and pliable, yet incredible powerful. When I worked for a company that cleaned powder paint ovens in automotive plants when I was in college, we used pressurized water to break apart tough areas and ultimately rid the ovens of excess paint and debris.

When water is highly pressurized it becomes incredibly powerful. The same water that we can’t even scoop up with our hands without cupping them can break apart rock-solid matter with enough pressure.

But even without extreme pressure water is incredibly powerful. Given enough time, water can cut through rock like butter. Just look to the valleys and streams to see how years of water traveling through land dominate the area and create their own structures. The flimsy, weak water, over time becomes incredibly powerful and can wear away the strongest rock.

As I watch the water flowing over flat areas of land, I can’t help but think of this process. The rivers start by simply looking for the lowest land. They simply follow gravity to know where to go.

The gravity pulls it to the lowest areas and as more builds up in higher areas it ultimately gets forced to these lower areas. The path that it takes the first time, might seem meaningless.

But the next time it floods, it will take an identical path, unless some structural change took place. Put an obstacle in the way and the water will simply find a new path around the obstacle.

The water flow will form a pattern. Every time it finds too much water in an area, it will drain out of that area through the same newly formed stream.

Over years and years and rainstorm after rainstorm, the water will continue to use the same path, cutting through it more and more. It wears away more and more of the solid land by dissolving the large land area into tiny specs that get absorbed by the water and transported downstream.

In Habit, by William James, he points directly to the connection between humans developing habits and the river forming. He says, “So nothing is easier than to imagine how, when a current once has traversed a path, it should traverse it more readily still a second time.”

Thinking of the river formation and linking it to the way we form habits we can gain some interesting insights.

First, the path we take, we are likely to take again, and again, and again. We assume we humans are constantly and consciously thinking about what to say and do, but the reality is that life is too complex for this type of unique thought and instead we rely on habits of thoughts and habits of behavior.

Even when we get caught up in the internal dialogue inside our heads, it likely follows an incredibly similar path each time, just as the water follows an almost identical path each time it rains.

Notice this when you are faced with a difficult situation. I recall when I gave my first presentation to a board of directors at a company. I was nervous and did everything I could to get through it without too many difficulties. But as I did that a few more times, I started to get comfortable with it. I also noticed I would prepare in the same ways and address changes throughout the presentation in a similar matter.

In essence, once I did it once, I carved a path. Then each time I did that I reinforced that path. I might make an adjustment based on some change in the meeting, just like the river might start to flow around a newly fallen tree, but for the most part the path was the same.

The second thing we can learn is that being flexible but persistent is the best way to overcome obstacles. The new flow of water doesn’t reach a new boulder in its path and give up. No, it adjusts and keeps flowing. When you hit obstacles on your path you often don’t need to completely start over, you can simply adjust your tactics to get around the obstacle and keep moving forward.

This can start to develop the knack for being flexible and able to adjust while still being persistent and consistent in your approach. This gives you the best chance at success because you will do it long enough to get traction but not get completely stopped by every challenge or adverse situation that arises.

If you are looking to build new positive habits, start by directing the path you are going to take and then take it again and again and again. This will start to form an important connection in your mind that allows you to subconsciously move through each step.

Then, as you start to develop the right steps, learn to become flexible while still being persistent. This will allow you to keep going past obstacles but still harness the power of repetitive action, just as the flowing water adjusts past a new pile of rock and still keep moving on, further carving out a new stream.