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From Intentional Business to Intentional Living – Adapting the Flywheel concept to drive your personal development journey

I am a student of business as much as a student of life. I am fascinated by what makes a good business great and no one has done more research on this topic than Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great” and “Great by Choice

Recently I have been studying Collin’s concept of the Flywheel effect. A series of steps that when implemented consistently and relentlessly create a cycle of momentum that slowly but steadily moves a company, organisation or person towards greatness. I put my thoughts on the Flywheel Effect and how it applies to Lean Transformation down in a previous post.


The Flywheel Effect – Jim Collins, ‘Good to Great’

Last Sunday morning, while making a cup of tea after my early morning yoga session (Yoga with Adriene), I realised that there was no reason I couldn’t apply the Flywheel concept to my own personal health journey. In his new monograph “Turning the Flywheel”, Collins gives many examples of how the Flywheel Effect can be applied to different and varied organisational situations. In his podcast on the subject with Tim Ferriss, he also discussed his own personal Flywheel that drives his own business and life journey.

This of course led me to immediately considering what my own “health journey” Flywheel might look like.

What fascinates me about the Flywheel is how obvious it is once you start considering the possibilities. I’ve written posts before about how making progress is more important than seeing results and the research done by Collins and his team categorically proves this to be true, at least in terms of highly successful organisations. So why not for your average human journey? A key point of Collin’s research was that progress for these companies was incremental, there was no discernible breakthrough perceivable from inside the companies. To an outside observer however, the sudden change from a good performing company to a great one seemed like an inspired breakthrough. In reality, the breakthrough had been made most likely years earlier when the company had developed its “Hedgehog Concept”, which I discuss further below, and started turning the Flywheel.

What has become even clearer during my recent studies is how often we move towards the “Doom Loop” as Collin’s describes the process of jumping from fad to fad in the hopes of saving a deteriorating situation.

doom loop

The Doom Loop – Jim Collins ‘Good to Great’

I know that I’ve personally had some run ins with thinking that the latest eating or exercise trend will be the thing that catapults me into a successful journey towards better health and fitness. In every case, it hasn’t been long before I’ve ended back at the beginning, demotivated, frustrated and in some occasions worse off.

The beauty of the Flywheel effect is that with each turn of the Flywheel, incremental progress is made, that builds motivation and momentum to continue turning the wheel.

Both Leo Babatua of Zen Habits and James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits” have identified the effectiveness of making small, almost infinitesimal changes when building new habits. Through personal experimentation they have built their own Flywheels over a long period of time, resulting today in what appears to be sudden greatness. In Babauta’s case you just have to look at his blog archives to see not only where he started, but how long it took him to get to where he is today as one of the icons of intentional living. Habit by habit, incremental change by incremental change he transformed his health, his finances and his overall life in the direction he wanted it to go.

Before I could develop a personal Flywheel I had to consider what I was trying to achieve. In Good to Great, Collins discusses the Hedgehog Concept (see below). The concept helps to develop a guiding concept that ultimately will drive our Flywheel.

Using an adaptation of Collin’s “hedgehog concept” I developed the answers to the three important questions:

  • What am I passionate about?
  • What is the best I can achieve? (as best in the world might be a stretch)
  • What do I need to keep focused on to ensure success? (what’s my economic engine?)

Combining this into a Hedgehog diagram I got this:
hedgehog personal

My initial attempt at my personal Hedgehog Concept

It’s early days and I’ll probably keep working this through but it’s close enough to start me on my Flywheel journey. I’m passionate about having a body that will sustain my intention to live an active lifestyle for as long as possible. The best I can achieve with my existing injuries is to maintain low body fat through eating properly, staying fit and keeping my joints flexible with something like swimming, yoga or pilates. Unfortunately, high impact sports like running and netball are off the menu for the foreseeable future.

I got a tip from Jim Collin’s when I was listening to him on the Tim Ferriss podcast. He talked about making sure that he averaged, year on year 1000 creative hours per year, using this as his focus for ensuring his Flywheel would keep moving. I’ve adapted this to clocking the hours of exercise I do per week/month/year and the number of days I eat healthy. This is my ‘economic engine’ and over time, I’ll be able to come up with the right number of days I need to maintain my own Flywheel and use this as the guiding measure of success. It’s important to note, and this is the real winner, if I start measuring success by how often I do something, I make the actual results, weight, body fat, flexibility irrelevant because I’m now measuring my success at living a lifestyle, not through empirical results.

Using my Hedgehog concept to start me off, I could now create my own Flywheel to drive my success.

Health flywheel

My healthy living journey Flywheel

Despite the simplicity and perhaps obvious nature of my Flywheel, until I created this diagram I had not really sat down and considered in detail what I was trying to achieve with my health journey. Notice that the first box says ‘consistently’. In my first draft I said ‘constantly’ before I realised that I was already setting myself up for failure. If I go back to my hedgehog concept, I can see that I want to create a ‘Collins-esque’, law of averages system where I consistently carry out the activities that will drive the Flywheel. ‘Constantly’ implies that there can be no rest for the hamster that is me running on this wheel. I know before I even start that the hamster wouldn’t survive long. So, despite its simplicity, this is a good place for me to start.

As a student of systems I’m always looking for ‘the big thing’ that will drive results to the next level but in reality the big thing is really just made up of a series of ‘little things’. The research on this topic shows that small, incremental improvements over a long period of time, consistent with your own  personal ‘hedgehog’ concept can’t help but result in greatness.

Well, bring it on greatness, I’m only thousands of tiny steps away.

Update May 2020: If you liked this article and want to find out how I’m going on my Flywheel journey check out these other posts:

Personal Flywheel Series – Two actions for moving forwards when you’ve been crushed by your own Flywheel

Revisiting the Flywheel – How a Flywheel concept can keep you on the long term road to greatness in your personal improvement journey

Intentional Living – Progress is really boring

Intentional Living – Exciting challenges make boredom bearable

Productive paranoia and a culture of discipline. Is this the secret to my future triumph over cookies?


  1. This post is incredible. I enjoyed reading “Good to Great” back in my college days and I love it when people use Jim Collins to reinforce their ideas.

    I love even more that you built on his concepts.

    Thank you so much for sharing. I look forward to reading more of what you have to say.

    Thank you,

    Let’s Talk About: Personal Development


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