7 Effective Ways Entrepreneurs Can Boost Their Cognitive Flexibility

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Peter Shallard
CEO | Commit Action |

Do you feel like your mind has lately become a rigid block of stone that is unable to bend or adapt?

As an entrepreneur navigating constantly shifting sands, cognitive flexibility is the superpower that lets you thrive amid chaos.

It's what enables visionary entrepreneurs to shatter assumptions and reshape industries by ‘thinking outside the box’.

But for most, it feels easier to cling to comfortable mental ruts than flexibly adapt.

Without cognitive flexibility, you stick relentlessly to the same stagnant thought patterns - even as the world rapidly evolves around you. 

Opportunities pass by unseen, and you double down on failing strategies. Your business shrinks from confronting uncertainty and change.

Eventually, unable to keep pace with the dynamism of entrepreneurship, burnout becomes inevitable.

The good news? 

Flexible thinking is a skill you can develop, not an innate gift. 

With consistent training, you can stretch beyond limiting mindsets to unlock greater innovation, resilience, and solution-finding ability. 

At Commit Action, we specialize in guiding entrepreneurs to consistently push past their mental comfort zones by committing to small courageous actions each week. With an accountability partner keeping you focused, you gradually enhance cognitive flexibility through repeated courageous efforts.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explain what cognitive flexibility means, why it’s mission-critical for entrepreneurs, how to spot deficiencies and provide 7 research-backed exercises to expand your mental dexterity.

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What is Cognitive Flexibility? 

Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to effortlessly shift between concepts, update viewpoints seamlessly, and adapt thinking in dynamic environments.

Psychologists define it as:

“The capacity to switch cognitive sets or adapt cognitive processing strategies to face new and unexpected conditions in the environment.”

Contrast this with cognitive rigidity, which is the inability to update perspectives, consider alternative ideas, and pivot strategies when existing conditions dictate your current circumstances.

For example, let's say you run an Italian restaurant that has built up a loyal customer base over many years. But suddenly a new high-end Italian place opens up down the street and starts stealing some of your customers.

A cognitively rigid thinker would stubbornly double down on the same old menu and marketing strategies, insisting their time-tested ways are superior and blaming the new restaurant for ‘unfairly’ stealing customers. They reflexively apply rigid assumptions even as the environment changes.

In contrast, a cognitively flexible thinker would objectively analyze the data showing declining sales. 

They'd visit the new restaurant to evaluate what they are doing differently. They'd ideate and test menu changes or new promotions to better attract customers. They update strategies based on new conditions instead of clinging to old assumptions.

The flexible thinker adapts dynamically, while the rigid one insists on jamming square pegs into round holes. 

Cognitive flexibility allows you to generate innovative solutions rather than defaulting repeatedly to the same mental ruts. You update understanding and strategies based on evolving contexts.

Read also: Wondering whether to make some New Year resolutions? Check out our article - Why you need a plan & how to make a good one for 2024.

Why Cognitive Flexibility is Critical for Entrepreneurial Success?

why is cognitive flexibility important.webpFor entrepreneurs aiming to capitalize on new opportunities in constantly shifting business environments, cognitive flexibility is a mandatory skill - not an optional nice-to-have. 

Developing mental agility helps entrepreneurs adapt, innovate, and uncover opportunities in dynamic conditions.

For example, when smartphones began gaining popularity in the late 2000s, Blockbuster clung to its retail stores and DVD-by-mail model even as new streaming platforms emerged. Without the agility to pivot strategically, Blockbuster went bankrupt. 

Meanwhile, Netflix capitalized early on the digital transition.

Real-life examples like this highlight why cognitive flexibility is so vital for entrepreneurs. It allows them to:

  • Adapt seamlessly as environments evolve: When markets, competitors, or technology change, cognitively flexible entrepreneurs dynamically update their business models and strategies rather than stubbornly defending outdated plans.

  • Spark creativity and innovation: Thinking flexibly beyond linear constraints enables making connections between seemingly disparate ideas, fuelling breakthrough innovations. 

  • Spot overlooked opportunities: Mentally agile entrepreneurs question assumptions to reveal possibilities and new markets others dismiss as constrained or limited.

  • Absorb lessons rapidly: Flexible thinkers take in information without bias and iterate intelligently. They don't reflexively reject facts contradicting their worldview like those prone to confirmation bias. This antifragility allows rapidly integrating lessons into ever-more effective strategies.

  • Thrive amid uncertainty: With cognitive flexibility, entrepreneurs exploratorily investigate ambiguous situations without needing absolute certainty first. This comfort with unpredictability allows for uncovering alternative paths forward when plans unravel.

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5 Early Signs You Need to Improve Your Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is like a muscle - it must be exercised regularly or else it will atrophy over time. Without even realizing it, you may be falling into rigid thinking habits and limiting patterns.

At Commit Action, we encourage our clients to break habits when they fall into a rut and keep them accountable so they can come back to their routine.

So, how can you spot the early warning signs that your mental dexterity needs some tuning up? Watch out for these common symptoms:

  • You cling to repetitive thought loops: Do you find yourself endlessly spiraling on the same worries and limiting beliefs - relentlessly overanalyzing problems without reaching solutions or action? That's a red flag your thinking is stuck in a rut.

  • You often feel stunned by change: Does even expected change frequently catch you off guard and totally rock your world? Do pivots feel jarring and destabilizing rather than opportunities you can capitalize on? Then you need to build your adaptability muscles.

  • You reject ideas contradicting your views: Are you outright dismissing insights from mentors, data showing flaws in your logic, or suggestions from your team because they don't align with your current convictions? That's your rigid thinking rearing its ugly head and it may be time to loosen up.

  • You rely heavily on past experience: Are you rejecting moves into unknown territory or approaches totally different from your experience? If you only look backward to guide future decisions, you're likely not cognitively agile enough to capitalize on new markets.

  • You avoid exploring uncertainty: Do you delay decisions endlessly until you have overwhelming certainty, causing you to miss fleeting opportunities? To seize emerging openings, you must become comfortable operating amidst unpredictability.

Let’s explore a couple of examples to help you understand these situations in a better manner:

  • A serial entrepreneur keeps starting e-commerce companies in the same narrow niche using nearly identical business models and strategies despite market saturation. Their past successes bias them to replicating worn tactics versus flexibly evaluating new models.

  • A CEO requires 300-page reports and 6 months of testing before approving any proposal. Their paralysis under uncertainty causes them to miss fleeting opportunities while overanalyzing. 

Do you see aspects of yourself in any of these scenarios? 

Pinpointing your own cognitive blindspots early is the first step to strengthening your flexibility. before they severely limit your success.

Read also: Learn how to hack your brain for fast business growth.

7 Exercises to Improve Cognitive Flexibility 

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Just like learning a language, regularly practicing cognitive flexibility exercises ‘trains’ your brain's ability to adapt and expands your mental vocabulary.

Integrate these activities into your weekly routine to retrain your neural pathways and expand your thinking:

1. Learn New Complex Skills

Exposing yourself to unfamiliar skills forces you to move beyond habitual thinking and forge new neural connections. 

Take up an instrument, foreign language, martial art, or anything intellectually demanding that takes you out of your comfort zone. The frustration and struggle of learning new complex skills require cognitive flexibility to push through mental barriers and build new capabilities. 

2. Travel Often to Diverse Locales

Immersive travel pushes you out of your comfort zone and exposes you to varied cultures and worldviews. You must actively engage with locals through respectful dialogue to understand their diverse outlooks and ways of thinking. 

Resist the temptation to retreat into familiarity and ring back applied lessons by reflecting on your experiences through journaling. 

3. Host Creative Brainstorming Sessions

Try gathering groups with different backgrounds, orientations, and functional expertise. Frame problems broadly, define key constraints, and set expectations to entertain even far-fetched ideas without judgment during ideation. 

The cross-pollination of diverse viewpoints and unfiltered idea generation flexes your mental capacity for novelty. 

4. Tackle Problems through Unconventional Approaches

When problem-solving, force yourself to start from radically different first principles and entertain solutions completely outside the box of current conventions and ‘best practices’. In other words, eliminate assumptions that limit imagination. 

Leverage techniques like assuming an outsider’s fresh perspective, role reversal, and questioning all given to shake up your standard cognitive patterns.

5. Read Widely on Diverse Topics

Read broadly about industries, cultures, and time periods far beyond your niche. Digesting vastly different perspectives prevents insular thinking within narrow domains and opens your mental aperture. 

Commit to reading a set number of books covering a wide breadth of topics and expand your knowledge across technology, history, philosophy, sciences, global affairs, and more.

6. Debate Issues with Intelligent Challengers

Discuss complex multifaceted topics with open-minded people who disagree with you and defend counterpoints without emotional attachment. You should allow your stance to evolve based on compelling arguments and evidence. 

The intellectual rigor of civil debate strengthens critical thinking skills. Seek opportunities like local meetups to engage in thoughtful debates regularly.

7. Mentally Simulate Diverse Scenarios

Imagine radically different contexts outside your experience and mentally simulate how you would strategize or behave within them. Think through unconventional ‘what-ifs’ that are at odds with your normal reflexes. 

Developing the ability to intuitively adapt requires exposure to imagined environments far beyond the familiar. In such a case, scenario planning builds readiness for change and greater mental plasticity.

In summary, consistently pushing beyond mental comfort zones with these targeted exercises rewires neural pathways over time for greater adaptability.

You can further augment flexibility improvements by varying existing routines, taking up different hobbies, joining interdisciplinary professional groups, and spontaneously breaking habits when you notice yourself about to default to old patterns.

The coaches at Commit Action keep you accountable and track your progress so don’t go back to your old ways.

Infusing your lifestyle with diversity compounds the effects of focused brain training. By expanding experiences and applying lessons to your core mission, you build resilience to thrive in uncertainty.

Commit to Growing Your Cognitive Flexibility

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Cognitive flexibility - the ability to fluidly shift perspectives and adapt thinking - is a mandatory skill for entrepreneurial success in times of constant change.

Warning signs like resisting contradictory ideas, over-reliance on past patterns, and avoidance of uncertainty signal a need to improve flexibility. 

Pushing beyond mental comfort zones with new challenges exercised consistently can retrain your brain’s neural pathways to become more agile. Actively strengthening cognitive flexibility unlocks creativity, resilience, quicker learning, and greater entrepreneurial potential. 

The most flexible entrepreneurs turn their mental dexterity into a competitive advantage, thriving amid volatility and uncertainty.

But doing so, amidst the chaos of business, can be challenging without a structure.

At Commit Action, our coaches provide accountability for the ultimate weekly productivity ritual entrepreneurs need to optimize focus and achieve goals.

In our weekly productivity ritual, our coaches guide you to:

  • Set priorities and break down big objectives into step-by-step plans

  • Block focused time on your calendar to complete important projects

  • Review progress and lessons from the past week to improve continuously

  • Stay on track with accountability check-ins and reminders

With this personalized approach, we empower entrepreneurs to maximize their time, focus, and mental dexterity in service of their vision.

If you're ready to boost productivity and performance, sign up here to learn more about our coaching for entrepreneurs. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is inflexible cognitive thinking?

Inflexible cognitive thinking, also known as rigid thinking, refers to the inability to adapt perspectives, consider alternative ideas, and change strategies when situations dictate. Rigid thinkers cling to entrenched assumptions and past experience rather than updating their mental models based on new evidence.

2. What causes low cognitive flexibility?

Factors that can contribute to low cognitive flexibility include aging, high stress, sleep deprivation, depression, addiction disorders, brain trauma or abnormalities, and practices like habitual ruminating or avoidance of new experiences that reinforce rigidity. 

3. Is mental flexibility the same as cognitive flexibility? 

Yes, mental flexibility and cognitive flexibility refer to the same ability to adapt thinking and perspective. Both terms describe the agility to shift mindsets and approaches rather than getting stuck in rigid patterns of thinking.

4. How does exercise affect cognitive flexibility?

Research shows aerobic exercise can improve cognitive flexibility along with other executive functions like focus and working memory. Exercise likely stimulates the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that facilitate new connections between brain cells.

5. What are the three major components of cognitive flexibility?

The three core components of cognitive flexibility are: 

  1. The ability to switch mental sets or perspectives. 

  2. The ability to adapt thinking and problem-solving approaches. 

  3. The ability to process and integrate new, unexpected information without clinging to old assumptions.

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