Get Clarity by Designing Some Constraints


Early in his career, one of my university professors set a constraint on how much money he would ever make in one year. He established a modest fixed cost of living amount, adjusted for inflation each year and gave away the rest.

Incredible, I always thought. Especially because he was the highest rated professor in the country in his field. Apart from his university compensation, his book sales and speaking income were enough to make him quite wealthy.

But whenever I asked him about it, he would tell me, “I believe my life will be freer and more focused if I am constrained.”

Now I understand what he meant. Constraints force creativity and challenge us to focus on what really matters. The fewer choices you have, the more your clarity increases.

Here’s a perfect example: The 100 Day Project at the Yale School of Art constrains students to repeat the same design operation every day for 100 days. The professor, Michael Bierut, says, “I’ve always had a fascination with the ways that creative people balance inspiration and discipline in their working lives.”

Constraints don’t naturally occur as often in a connected and globalized world. You can communicate with almost anyone in the world or access almost any content at any time. According to Cal Newport in his book Deep Work, however, one of the most valuable skills in our economy is to constrain distractions for long periods of time.

The Residual Damage of an Unconstrained Mind

Neuroscientists confirm the psychological consequences of having unconstrained activity. In her paper “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?” University of Minnesota professor Sophie Leroy explains that human beings experience Attention Residue when multi-tasking or moving across activities. She has shown that when you move from one activity the next, thoughts will always continue to linger in your brain about the previous activity. This “residue” will reduce your concentration and capacity to fully engage in the moment

Putting this idea to work, I’ve removed work email from my phone. For too long, I would check email at traffic lights (or even, dare I admit, while driving), with my family, right before falling asleep, in the bathroom and in every other free moment. Now that I’ve removed the email, I feel liberated (and more productive). Setting this limit has made me freer to focus on the present moment and has forced me to be more creative with my mind. Wonder of wonders, I’ve done more thinking.

Constraints remind us that we are finite human beings, which is part of why some religious traditions advocate the practice of fasting. For instance, for the next 40 days, I’ve given up eating foods that are high in sugar like candy, cookies and ice cream. I love those foods and, if given the option, will consume several in a sitting. But it often leaves me feeling jittery—and then tired. Giving it up has been brutal. But I’ve felt free from the quasi-addiction to sweets that often rules my thinking.

Have the Courage to Trade Disappointment for Freedom

Whether it’s constraints on money, technology, food or something else, the loss is disappointing. It’s disappointing to me when I can’t eat what I want. Not eating what someone has given me may be disappointing to them, too. And not having email access on my phone means that I will disappoint people who expect a more immediate response.

But to live a more focused and freer life means that you have to accept disappointment. And ironically, by rejecting those in-the-moment triggers and instant-gratification responses, you can be more engaged and attentive to your present—a human being, not just a human doing.

Of course it’s your choice to make. Will you take everything you can get? Or will you set limits to clearly focus on what is essential?

Asked another way, will you be spread wide and thin? Or will you be a person of depth and purpose?

Here are some constraints you could consider adopting:

  • No work after a specified time of day
  • No work on a specified day of the week
  • Set a consistent time to bed and/or time to rise
  • Schedule time blocks for distraction-free work
  • Limit technology use
  • Self-impose dietary restrictions
  • Carpool or share transportation
  • Arrive home by a fixed time of day
  • Restrict use of overused or unhelpful words or phrases
  • Limit talking in meetings (to improve listening)
  • Restrain from fixing or solving problems that other people can handle
  • Give away a percentage of your money

What constraint could you design to produce more clarity?

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