Can you touch your toes? Do the splits? Those are often the first things most people think of when flexibility is mentioned. Of course, both are indicators of physical flexibility, and improving or maintaining your physical flexibility can help prevent muscle pain, increase range of motion, and help circulation. Physical flexibility is a good thing and certainly something we could all strive to improve. But it is not the only type of flexibility that can bring serious benefits.
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to think creatively, without being too stuck on one concept or plan of action. A flexible mindset allows us to come up with out-of-the-box solutions to complex problems, which is a universally valuable skill. If we approach a problem with a set idea of what the solution should be, we have already precluded the search for a better answer. Flexibility helps us keep an open mind and look for options that are creative or unusual. More importantly, however, it prevents rigidity and uncompromising ideas from inhibiting our ability to adapt to change. As technology enables the rapid spread of information, we are inundated with different cultures, opposing opinions, and a vastly more detailed view of the world. If we refuse to take this new information into account when developing our beliefs and opinions, we run the risk of depriving ourselves of a more nuanced and complete understanding. Very few things in life are reliably black and white. Flexibility enables us to see the shades of gray inherent in most of life’s choices and adjust our behavior accordingly. Even if we don’t change our opinions, we’re better able to contribute to a meaningful discussion and develop solutions to problems when we are open to many possibilities.
Just like physical flexibility, mental flexibility doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. Sure, some people can do the splits easily, but others have to work to even touch their toes. Similarly, some people may have the ability to see a variety of possible solutions to a problem quickly and clearly, while others have to make a conscious effort to look at other options. The good news is that it is possible to increase your cognitive flexibility (and have fun while doing it). You can try something new, like learning a language or taking up a martial art. You can vary your routine by taking a new running route or vacationing in a place you’ve never been before. You can even do simple things like playing a trivia game on your phone or doing a crossword. These changes, combined with a conscious reminder to keep an open mind to all the possibilities, can greatly improve our cognitive flexibility and make us better employees, friends, family members, and citizens.