Cardiovascular fitness. Muscle hypertrophy. Obesity. Learning. Training dogs. Natural selection. All just examples of the process of adaptation.
Adaptation is simply the process of becoming more efficient at dealing with a repeated stimuli.
Let's go through each of these examples and see how they are simply manifestations of adaptation.
- Cardivascular fitness: By running consistently and frequently, the cardiovascular system has to become more efficient at delivering oxygen to your body. By consistently straining your cardiovascular system, it adapts by increasing your cardiovascular fitness. So by the 100th time you run a mile, there's less strain to deal with that forced stimuli of running.
- Muscle hypertrophy: Strength training. By repeatedly exposing the muscle fibers to strain, they have to adapt to be more efficient at contracting. The result is increase in the size and quantity of the muscle fibers, resulting in a strong physique.
- Obesity: By repeatedly consuming food, your body has to become more efficient at storing it. The number of fat cells capable of storing food actually increases. That's why it's more difficult to lose weight once you put it on: you have more total fat cells in your body (in addition to an increase in their average size!). Back in our caveman days, the need to store food efficiently was an adaptation to the scarcity and infrequency of meals. (Aside: the recently popular intermittent fasting diet regime is the other side of the same coin).
- Learning: Or, more specifically, acquiring knowledge rather than rational thought. Memorizing. Learning about chemical bonds or language theory. By repeatedly exposing your neurons to the same stimuli (a fact, a process, etc.) they adapt. They become more efficient at recalling that information in the future. This way, when the information is needed again, or when you read the same book a fifth time, your memory is more efficient (it takes less "mental strain" or less time) to bring the information to your awareness.
- Training dogs: When you punish a dog for a given action, he adapts. The first few times that he experiences the punishment, he doesn't yet form a pattern to predict whether it will happen in the future. But by the 10th time, he sure won't be pulling on the leash when going for a walk.
- Natural selection: In terms of evolution, only the strong survive. Or rather, only the best-fitted to the current environment survive. The universe is constantly presenting our environment with new stimuli. For example our earth's atmosphere, which we've adapted to and expanded beyond. Harsh conditions. The primordial soup from which it is theorized DNA emerged. All simple examples of life's molecules adapting to repeated exposure to the universe's conditions and stimuli, resulting in only the adapted organisms surviving.
This is all well and good, and perhaps blatantly obvious. But how do you use the concept of adaptation to better achieve your goals and benefit your personal life? It's simple: frequency. There are platitudes galore of this. For example: "consistency is key", "practice makes perfect", "an apple a day keeps the doctor away".
William James was a 19th century philosopher who said:
"When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits."
Use the fact that we naturally adapt to fine-tune your habits. By doing something consistently, frequently, whether it's running, or working on an architecture design, you will naturally adapt. By the 17th time you see the same architecture plans, or you read the same literary deconstruction, it has become a part of you. You've adapted. You've been exposed to the same stimuli too often (in a good way!). This clears the way for you to efficiently see patterns or creatively use that information to push further in your given task. By running frequently, even if you don't push yourself past your previous limit every day, your adaptation will naturally allow you to push yourself from couch to 5k. Now for professional level athletes, simply relying on frequency alone is not the most efficient way to achieve their goals, but for nearly every other person, doing something frequently for several years and then decades will have a profound cumulative effect on their lives.
Being particular and intentional with how you spend your time is the basis for many motivational videos and speeches, and is simply capitalizing on the process of adaptation.