The Flywheel Effect: What It Is & How It Can Fuel Your Life With Purpose

March 22, 2021

letter board reading "The Flywheel Effect" next to a scarf and succulent

If you were to ask business researcher, Jim Collins, “Why do people tend to avoid change,” he’d probably point you back to one of the most basic laws of nature—things in motion stay in motion, and things at rest stay at rest. 

In the example of a flywheel (a cylindrical object that is extremely heavy, designed to better store kinetic energy), it takes constant amounts of steady pressure (force) before the flywheel (mass) begins to move (accelerate). When it does, however, Collins has noticed that change goes from 0 to 100 extremely quickly.

That slow and steady pressure that Collins refers to is the key to change—a key that our fast-paced, results-oriented brain often fails to see. 

All the force we’re applying seems to make no distance for a long time until one day that change takes off—flying fast and quickly gaining traction. 

That process is called the Flywheel Effect—and understanding it is an important key to making profound change in your life.

The Origins of the Flywheel Effect

The Flywheel effect is a concept developed by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. In his book, Collins discusses the slow and steady process of how transformation happens, taking examples from companies, social sectors, and artistic innovation. 

Unlike the common misconception of “big breaks” and “strokes of luck,” Collins asserts that those lucky chances are not coincidences at all—but rather a combination of slow, incremental changes and continuous momentum. 

He divides this momentum into three main stages for companies: disciplined people, disciplined thought, disciplined action. From strong, disciplined leadership the loop goes to finding the right people and then from finding the right people to confronting the current reality with disciplined thought. According to the Flywheel Chart, once a business confronts their current reality then, and only then, do they start to enter the breakthrough point. Once the breakthrough trajectory is launched, the progress is accelerated through refining one’s core business (called the Hedgehog Concept), developing a culture of discipline, and utilizing technological accelerators. 

Throughout this whole process, it’s important to note that no single action can be seen as the cause for success, but rather the unwavering, unrelenting struggle toward continual progress. Companies who, conversely, find themselves trying to make sweeping changes and revolutionary alterations wind up finding themselves in what Collins’ refers to as “The Doom Loop,” or the discovery of a supposed silver bullet that will launch a company to success. Unlike what the company had hoped for, Collins found that sweeping new directions often led to a lack of accumulated momentum, disappointing results, and then a reaction to the failure with the creation of, once again, a new direction (thus closing the loop).

Though Collins applies the framework of the flywheel effect predominantly to businesses, the effects of the flywheel effect and the doom loop can easily cross over into personal success and wellbeing as well.

It’s easy to compare ourselves to what feels like “final products”—Instagram influencers who seem to pop up overnight, famous celebrities, multi-published authors—without looking at the long work and hours that it took them to get there. While the flywheel effect cannot and should not undercut the ways in which privilege plays into who can and cannot become successful, it does provide a necessary structure for how to make positive, effective change.

How It Can Apply To Your Life

In a world of diet culture and calorie restriction, it’s easy to be drawn to crash diets and “lose 10 lbs in 10 days” programs. And yet, researchers continue to find that the best way to live a balanced, healthy lifestyle is through small, incremental change. My most effective lifestyle changes have always been the ones where I introduce one new healthy lifestyle habit at a time—starting with drinking water, adding in exercise, and then moving on to a more healthy, balanced diet. 

As Sloww.co describes it, “A flywheel is an underlying, compelling logic of momentum … there’s an inevitability built in. If you do A, you almost can’t help but do B. And if you do B, you almost can’t help but do C. And if you do C, you almost can’t help but do D. And around and around. And it’s driven around because there’s an underlying connection. There’s a logical sequence that builds dynamic momentum, because A drives B drives C drives D and around back to the top of the loop.” 

The biggest benefit of the flywheel effect is that you don’t even notice the momentum building until someone else does. While your change may feel slow and gradual, others start to comment on what seems like a surprising, dramatic change. 

The key throughout the process is to not get discouraged. While change may seem elusive and out of reach, that momentum gets built from daily effort and simple, small adjustments. 

How To Build Habits With The Flywheel Effect

Whether you’re hoping to live a more healthy lifestyle, master a new instrument, or become more eco-friendly, all of these lifestyle changes don’t happen overnight. From the perspective of the flywheel effect, these changes should be broken down into tiny, continuous improvements. 

If you’re looking to go zero-waste, start by switching out one beauty product at a time to more sustainable options. Next, invest in a compost bin to minimize food waste. The more you research and improve, the more you’ll change for the better. 

Change is never easy, but as Jim Collins realized, there are ways to make change happen. Everyday is an opportunity to work a bit closer to becoming the person you want to be. Don’t wait for something dramatic to happen. Do what’s in your power today to make a small difference a big difference.

Also by Dana: Coffee or Tea? The Carbon Footprint Of Your Daily Brew

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Photo: Dana Drosdick

Dana Drosdick
Dana is a marketer living in Saratoga Springs, NY with a passion for all things related to stewardship, faith, wellness, and personal enrichment. Her work has been featured in various Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, The Odyssey Online, and The Banner Magazine. Follow her at @danadrosdick on Instagram for foodie trends, her latest book recommendations, and far too many photos of clementines.

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