Evolving to walk upright

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Evolution Instead of Resolutions4 min read

We are two months into the new year, and you know what that means. 80% of us have given up on our New Year’s resolutions. January started with a strong desire to make changes and that this year would be different. And for a few days, it went great, but as the days passed, our drive disappeared, and we gave up. We have failed to recognize that change is not simple. We cannot just set a goal and do it. Making a genuine change is about evolving as a person. The challenge isn’t getting up every day at 5:30 am; it is becoming a morning person. The challenge isn’t writing for 60 minutes; it is becoming someone that publishes frequently. And our habits, tendencies, and self-perception as a night-owl or a sporadic writer all have to change to allow us to succeed.

Most of the growth goals that we set for ourselves are complex changes. In the last post, I looked at the Cynefin model as a way of giving advice. In this one, I will dig deeper into how to make complex changes. One reason I write is that it allows me to think through how I can learn and grow. In writing this post, I have been evolving my writing practice, and this article is a result. It is also a work in progress as I continue to define how I write and help people evolve.

Start where you are and set a direction.

People often talk about the value of having SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) goals. These are great when we are working towards incremental changes. But when we are trying to make complex evolutionary changes, an end state is harder to define. If you want to be a writer, it might be easy to set a goal like writing 100 articles, but turning into a published writer is likely to be more complex.

The first step is to get a clear and honest picture of where you are. How often do you write now? What types of things are the challenges you face (skills you need to learn, practices you need to adopt)? What is the trajectory you want to get on? Instead of choosing a destination like getting published in the Harvard Business Review, focus on a direction, like increasing the number of days each week that you write.

Change your constraints.

Often time we set governing constraints around our habits. Governing constraints are limits that prevent us from doing things we shouldn’t do, and they are hard rules that are brittle. These constraints are like an exoskeleton on a crustacean. They are rigid and inflexible. And when they break, we lose all hope. It is hard to grow with these constraints. Like “writing every day for an hour,” many of our resolutions are this type of hard rule. When I fail and break that rule, it is easy to lose momentum. And as we grow, we will need to get rid of the old constraints and create new ones.

There is a different type of constraint, which is an Enabling constraint. Enabling constraints are like an endoskeleton in mammals. They provide internal support and structure. An example of this would be to decide to increase the time spent writing each week.


It is hard to know what will work in a complex system, and failure and trying new things should be part of the plan. Ideally, we should run these experiments in parallel. Conditions are continually changing, so what works one day may not work the next. And with each experiment, we will change. Since we don’t have clones that can allow us to try different things in the same conditions simultaneously, we have to run experiments serially.

To maximize the learning, it can help clarify what the experiment is and the conditions under which we tried it. If something failed once doesn’t mean it won’t work. It means it didn’t work in that context. We will have a new context each day. If things are different, try again. It is essential to have a log of what we are trying and to reflect on the process. What we are looking for are patterns and tendencies. Things that can allow us to make alternative choices and new options to make things stick.

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