How Creating Constraints Helps Your Focus, Creativity & Productivity

Wouldn’t it be great if work projects had no restrictions or limitations? No finance team following up on $4,000 Facebook ad invoice, no sales team breathing down your necks on the shipping date?

At a glance, unlimited budgets and no deadline sound great. Free to do whatever you want, whenever you want with no constraints. Sounds amazing right?

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But is that really an ideal scenario?

Imagine you were given an unlimited budget and no deadline for a marketing campaign. Where would you begin? Which channels would you choose? Could you hire some celebrities as influencers? Would it only be a digital-only campaign or offline too? Maybe billboards and radio ads? Oh wait, let’s throw in some TV ads.

Too much freedom can have the opposite of the desired effect, leading to analysis paralysis. Too many choices can lead to indecision; think of the last time you spent 20 mins browsing through Netflix then settled on the same old comfortable choice.

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.

Steve Jobs

Creating constraints on your work can help boost your creativity and productivity. No limitations can blur your vision; forcing restrictions will help it focus. Constraints will help you realise what’s important to the project and what can be cut.

Take project management software company Basecamp for instance. Widely respected for their work-life balance culture, Basecamp has spent the past 20+ years building a calm, sustainable, and long-term focused company, and is a great example of constraint.

David Heinemeier Hansson, the company’s co-founder, originally built the original version of Basecamp working only 10 hours a week, in between juggling client work (Basecamp was originally a web design agency) and creating Ruby on Rails.

Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.

Getting real, Basecamp

When we interviewed Dr Martin Timchur, co-founder & CEO of Esencia Healthcare, he brought up an interesting point about reversing Parkinson’s law:

Parkinson’s law is the adage that ‘work expands as to fill the time available for its completion.’ By this principle, the reverse is equally true. A task will only take as long as the time you have available to complete it. If you need to write a proposal and you have a week to complete it, it will take a week to complete. If the same proposal is due tomorrow, it will take one night to write.

How to apply constraints to your work (and life)

  • Learn how to say no. Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, has a great tip for this: “Use this rule if you’re often over-committed or too scattered. If you’re not saying “hell yeah!” about something, say ‘no’.”
  • Give yourself hard deadlines. Wherever possible, restrict yourself to a timeframe for a certain task. For example, you only have 30 mins to write an article, and whatever you write in that time is what you’re going to publish, or at least just edit.
  • Minimise distractions. I love my two monitor set up at work but when I really need to focus, I take my laptop to a quiet corner for knuckle down. Gmail, Slack, Google Drive, Asana, etc. are great tools to help with your work, but sometimes, all you need is a blank piece of paper and no distractions.

Truly original artists work by imposing constraints on themselves, in terms of the subjects they paint, materials they use, and artists they draw upon for inspiration. Monet, for example, purposefully limited his subjects, repeatedly painting pictures, by the dozens, of subjects like grain stacks and water lilies.

Donald N. Sull & Kathleen M. Eisenhardt – Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.