The Freedom of Constraints
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”– Arthur Ashe
The beauty of life is amplified by the brevity of it. If everything was infinitely abundant and never-ending, we would not enjoy it so much. Cherry blossoms are appreciated because and in spite of them only blooming for two weeks once a year. Some constraints are the result of our respective socio-economic situations. Others come from the compounding of unfortunate circumstances or bad decisions. And yet others come from self selection. The last is particularly powerful. When we consciously create constraints in our lives, we simultaneously give ourselves freedom expectations and demands on us that often come from others. This approach is addition through subtraction.
We let ourselves get tied to commitments that will take away time from the pursuits that will feed our creativity, relaxation, or deep work. We set intimidating goals like running a marathon or writing a novel that make us balk at the volume of work the activity will require; ultimately driving us to put off even the smallest baby steps toward the goal. What’s worse, we don’t constrain our leisure pursuits or appetites for entertainment & consumerism. Unbridled anytime and anywhere instant gratification leaves unsatisfied in the end.
I believe real freedom comes from constraints. Particularly the boundaries and limits we self impose on ourselves. The type of freedom I am talking about is the freedom from decision fatigue from staring at an endless stream of choices. Freedom from the fear of missing out which makes us overbook our schedules or chase pursuits that do not serve us. The freedom from to be curious and try different pursuits or practice our hobbies by not setting unrealistic expectations on how much or what needs to be achieved to call the effort worthwhile. What follows are some examples in different settings of how artificial constrains can create more space and freedom for what we really value.
One example of how subtracting adds more value is in the streamlining of the onboarding process at many companies. The traditional “firehouse of information” new hires go through one the first 30-90 days is daunting and often demoralizing. New hires try to go a mile wide and learn everything instead of going a mile deep and learning what will make the most impact in their first year during this learning period. The default approach is to keep adding to this information overload and make sure nothing is left out. I argued recently at work for the opposite approach. That we actually remove content from the onboarding program, especially in light of today’s virtual onboarding experience. Pick three things that new employees need to know the most for their first year and go deep on those topics. Then follow up over the remainder of the year with a guided and constrained experience that would allow new hires to go a mile deep over time on individual topics rather than be spread a mile wide trying to cover all topics.
Another way I create freedom for myself at work is to employ two techniques that constrain access to my time. I use calendar blocking to preserve key moments of the day I need for myself locked so that colleagues don’t book those windows. These are periods for preparing for the day, wrapping up, or deep work. Tools like Clockwise and Reclaim automate this process and help you find focus time while reducing the brain fog that comes from repetitive context switching from one meeting to another. I also try to group meetings by type. All of my 1:1s happen on specific days back to back. I stay focused on that frame of mind and can trace learnings from one meeting to the next. What I am ultimately doing is constraining my available hours but giving myself the freedom to focus on the priorities in front of me.
Applying constraints to ourselves to govern our own individual pursuits is simultaneously the hardest and most important area of our lives that needs boundaries. Artificially limiting the time and or frequency of personal experiences can often enhance the activity itself. Drinking without end turns from a fun night to a miserable one at the tipping point of a few drinks for most of us. If you know you can only have the a couple of drinks you may choose more wisely and buy a better cocktail or wine or beer. An approach that will guide you into broader exploration of menus and similar when out. Or for something more accessible, you can like me, elect for one really great cup of coffee a day versus a steady stream of caffeine. You become inherently more thoughtful when you you know you need to get an experience right the first time.
The same can be said for consumption and entertainment. What is freeing about limits in these areas is the reduction in that feeling of missing out or having to make a choice from an ever expanding universe of options. For example, I have a cap on how much TV viewing I allow myself. I try not to watch more than 8 hours of television in a week. This viewing allotment extends to series, movies, and any other miscellaneous viewing. Again, there is a lot freedom in not worrying about missing out on every new show or film. You also are more open inclined to abandon a show quickly if it is not doing it for me. It comes in the extra time available to other forms of entertainment I might have otherwise ignored. The same line of thinking can extend our closets and other collections where too many choices often have us not accepting that their are only a handful that really bring joy and the rest are just distractions.
There are numerous ways that it has been said that limitations can sawn motivation and creativity. I think that more importantly limitations allow us the space to tray and fail over and over, getting it right more and more with each try by lowering the expectations of what needs to be achieved. Expectations that are often set in the interest of what others deem worthy and not ourselves. Want to learn an instrument, limit yourself to 15 minutes a day. In that constrained window you won’t allow yourself the wishful thinking of becoming a virtuoso but you will probably find yourself just having fun exploring. The resulting repetitive practice of and demystification of your pursuit of choice will only fuel a fire to get better and maybe as that fire grows you allow that 15 minutes to become 30 and so on.
It is hard to say No when invited to something by friends or family. It’s a strong skill that needs to be developed because we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t show up with our whole self, present and engaged. We detract from others’ experience and can eat away at our sociability when we say yes to everyone over our own needs. Your calendar is again the key to your freedom and the freedom of others. I am not saying to become an introvert and shun the world. I am suggesting you find your sweet spots where you can fully engage with others and stick to those windows for when you will accept social engagements. Additionally, we try to keep them to the afternoon and maintain our mornings for our coveted routines that restore and balance us from the main part of the week.
In our case, we limit social outings to weekends. Ideally, we also no longer commit to more than one activity day and no more than three social commitments over a weekend. Let’s face it, the weekdays are half work and half chores. Stacking a social engagement in that window only leaves us half paying attention anyway. You should also feel free to take whole days and weekends to yourself to just be even with nothing to do but sit with your thoughts. If you are not somewhere where you were only going to be begrudgingly or too preoccupied to enjoy, you free your host to enjoy their event without you as possibly a detractor. The more you start to carefully allocate your free time, the more you start to enjoy the engagements you commit to. Knowing that you really will be engaged and there for the people you said YES to.
Ina previous post I talked about my love for pop-up experiences. The finite nature of these experiences refreshing. Whether the pop-up it is an eatery, shopping, or physical activity. The short time frame of a pop-up is likely freeing for the creator and the consumer. The once and done nature of these events makes them memorable in the way that trip to a country that takes 20+ hours of flight time is memorable. The likelihood of doing it again is limited for the consumer, driving their engagement to greater levels. For the creator pouring more into the uniqueness of an experience is freeing for their imaginations. They are now unbound by the expectation to drive value in perpetuity, just for a few weeks or months. The end date is established and so a fear of failure is at least partially staved off.
Ideas for Creating Constraints
If you are like me and like to do a lot of social experimentation, you are already thinking about ways to create constraints that will spark your creativity. If you are looking for inspiration here are some ideas. At a minimum, apply the lens of addition through subtraction to every facet of your life. This approach does not cost anything and does not have to be permanent. It’s simple experimentation by just setting up temporary boundaries. Such as, not buying any new books until you have read everything already on your shelves. Or try cooking with only 3 ingredients for a week to see how many recipes you can concoct. You can also remove distractions and time box them; an example of this is giving your social media passwords to someone you trust and having them change it then give you access only on the weekends.
Sometimes adding can be a constraint in a way if used as a prompt. If you are trying to build your skills as a web developer you could buy a random domain name and try to mock up a product, business, or artistic creation around it. You are challenging yourself to get additional repetitions on your skillset while building out a portfolio. The same could go for photography or music creation or any creative endeavor. Prompts really work well for getting the creative juices flowing. So long as you lower your expectations for what the outcome should be and focus on the process. I use the site, A.Word.A.Day, to get a random word prompt daily, then use that word in short paragraph to practice my writing. Or you could use a random writing prompt from a site like The Story Shack to motivate you to create a new story or article everyday with a random prompt to get you out of a writing block.
One area where I would love to see constraints introduced is in the area of social media. It would be awesome if anyone reading this could share this post to those who may be in charge of products and features at sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I would ask that they start considering constraints on what we do on their sites. Such as rather than having people post endlessly, what if you constrained them to only three posts a day? How might the content they post must be improved if they knew there is a cap on the amount of activity they can have in a day, per week, per month, or per year? Might it be more thoughtful, factual, and meaningful? Constraints could be the cure to the endless noise on social media today.