Health & Wellness Articles

6 Ways to Maintain Your Mental Flexibility

Learn to Roll with the Punches and Dodge Life's Wrenches

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When you first start making room for healthy habits in your busy life, being a stickler can be beneficial—setting a workout schedule, planning your meals in advance, saying no to things that get in the way of your goals.  Without giving yourself some rules—and being a little inflexible—at the beginning, you’ll be likely to fall off the wagon much more quickly.
But as you build your habits, you'll eventually discover that things don't always go according to your plan. There will undoubtedly be road bumps (an unexpectedly long work day), detours (your favorite body sculpting class gets cancelled) and setbacks (birthday cake!). If you rigidly follow your plan instead of being a little flexible once in a while, you could do more harm than good.
Experts in behavior science view mental flexibility not as a personality trait or a state of mind, but as a set of behaviors that can be changed. Everyone is flexible about some things and inflexible about others. When you think about flexibility as "something I do" and not "who I am," you will start to realize that you can make lasting, positive changes that may open up opportunities for some relaxation, laughter and joy amid the daily grind. If you feel like you’ve become a bit of a stickler about strict schedules and perfect plans, it may be time to loosen up and become more flexible. Here's how.
Accept Your Behavioral History
People often talk about Type-A characteristics as if they are inherent personality traits. But most people didn’t become inflexible and perfectionistic overnight. There have probably been many times in your past when your perfectionism paid off: You led study groups (complete with mock quizzes) for your middle school friends. You hosted an impromptu bachelorette party for a girlfriend when the maid of honor’s venue fell through. You volunteered for your kindergartener’s dance recital and ended up coordinating the whole production (which received a standing ovation). The science of behavior holds that we will continue doing those things that get recognized, revered and rewarded. The reason that you’ve developed so many take-charge tendencies is because, throughout your life, you’ve received lots of powerful praise for taking the reins.
Identify Places Where You Can Compromise
Perhaps you’re always the first to speak your mind in important meetings or you have a habit of jumping to point out grammatical errors in company communications.  Maybe you're "that parent" on the field, making playbook suggestions to your child’s soccer coach while the other parents simply cheer from the bleachers. None of these habits are inherently wrong in and of themselves, but there’s a fine line between being assertive and being domineering.
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About The Author

Megan Coatley Megan Coatley
Megan is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with a masterís degree in applied behavior analysis from Western Michigan University. As a health and wellness coach, she combines her passion for nutrition and fitness with her professional talents to help others creative positive, lasting change and live healthier lives.

Member Comments

  • I learned that in fitness I have to balance strength and flexibility to avoid injury. I was actually too flexible for my strength. I think I may need to stick more rigidly to my program and not let myself be so flexible! - 5/31/2015 11:36:43 AM
  • I very nearly had a panic attack at the thought of leaving dishes in the sink... apparently I need this article :) - 4/11/2014 9:55:01 AM
    i liked this article very much it had alot of information - 12/15/2013 7:42:12 PM
    i liked this article very much it had alot of information - 12/15/2013 7:41:45 PM
  • Good one. Thank you for sharing. - 8/9/2013 7:59:48 AM
    I choose to not cross out the 'im' and to make it 'I'm possible'. That works for me. :) - 8/7/2013 8:24:32 PM
  • A "weekly date night"? The chance would be a fine thing!!! - 8/7/2013 11:09:53 AM
  • All things are possible through him who strength me daily. Great article. - 7/4/2013 9:51:22 AM
  • My take on this is that one should be sufficiently self-aware to recognize what causes stress, and to try to structure your life to reduce that. If you can't stand dishes piled in the sink, build the habit of putting them in the dishwasher. Or, if you can't stand washing dishes and would rather deal with them later, do that. The stress comes from feeling like you have to do things that are contrary to what you're inclined to prefer. Sure, there are plenty of times when you can't control those sorts of things, but when you can control what you can control - do. - 7/3/2013 11:09:17 PM
  • crap why cant you edit your posts I saw typos that the spell checker missed. Rats. - 11/9/2012 10:28:21 PM
  • I suppose everyone bring their own perspective to this article judging by dome of the comments !! All I know from personal experience is that my Dad was a very stubborn and at times negative man and I am sure it contributed (or at the very least exacerbated) to his Alzheimer's . - 11/9/2012 10:27:16 PM
  • This is a fabulous post! Thanks for sharing your ideas. You may also want to add this info from a new study was posted in the Mayo Clinic Journal last month which found that moderate exercise combined with, of all things - computer use - reduced the risk for memory impairment in those over 70. Since so many of us use a computer these days and we don't always think it's a good thing, it's nice to know that we are stimulating our brain cells - as long as we do some Yoga, brisk walking or another form of moderate exercise along with our Facebook, twitter and other computer uses! - 8/30/2012 2:00:36 PM
    I like to change "Impossible" to "I'm Possible". :) - 8/29/2012 7:26:04 PM
  • Learning to let go and let other people do things their way sometimes is a very important life skill to develop. Often the inflexible person does not realize how much they alienate others, including family members, by making them feel incompetent and worthless. For example, when a wife redoes the dishes her husband just washed, because she notices tiny soap bubbles on them as they were drying. Can you imagine how small the husband feels when that happens? You can't treat people like children all the time and expect there to be no consequences.

    I know someone who has unfortunately made it to his 60s without realizing the impact his perfectionism has on others. His need to have everything done his way, which he believes is the only right way, makes it difficult to be around him sometimes. In my opinion, this is a sign of a sort of immaturity as a person. It's a mark of maturity and growth to let go and realize the world keeps spinning regardless of your actions. - 8/29/2012 12:19:51 PM
    I know I have to have the dishwasher loaded a certain way or it drives me crazy and I have to say something when somebody doesn't do it "right". So I can practice flexibility by realizing they will get clean anyway and it really itsn't that important. So I need to let it go. I think the thing with leaving dishes in the sink drives us crazy too and of course it just takes a minute to put them away so why leave them? We have to learn to be flexible on these little things to be flexible on the bigger things. We have to learn not to let it stress us to leave the dishes. - 8/29/2012 11:13:57 AM

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