If you ask an engineer to solve a problem, they are going to want to know what the constraints are. It’s how we were relentlessly trained to solve problems. Whether they are the forces acting on a mass, Ohm’s law or your working budget, the constraints help define and focus the problem. Constraints take out the myriad possibilities that obscure the view of what is relevant or matters.
Constraints can often feel like trade-offs, but they are necessary in this world of ours. We can’t have everything we want or do many things right now in the same moment. We are limited by resources and time.
But that limitation can help us get clear and motivated around possibilities that may have once seemed vast and overwhelming.
If you don’t move from a dream to something concrete, then the idea hangs out there without action. It’s predictable. There is no time constraint.
If you don’t start on launching that business you dreamed of, there may be a lack of constraints to frame the next steps. Could you start with a little bit of money rather than wait for that far off day of having everything in order and abundant first? Could you work with just three people on your team than quickly hire others?
Having a limited time to work or a set amount of resources on something can make you more productive and fruitful. If you tell yourself you only have an hour to get something done, then you won’t dawdle, wander or waste time. It’s an hour and that’s it. The constraint forces clarity on what you need to get done.
If you give yourself too many options or undefined parameters, then your work can get spread out, or you may not even start. When Hugh MacLeod started limiting his cartoons to a small business card format, his art got focused and his work took off.
If you were a furniture designer and you could only work in bronze, a writer that could only write for 30 minutes in the morning, or a videographer and could only shoot 28 second videos with a message, you just created constraints.
This allows you to explore the edges and extract what may not be apparent to more casual practitioners. The possibilities transition from what should be done to how perfect something can become. It moves your work from bland and common to being sharp and unique. Think about the magic of a haiku.
Ultimately, constraints are a form of commitment. You are saying that you are picking something and courageous enough to let go of all the other mediocre options. It can be daunting, but it’s where great work can happen, and what y0u may have been floundering with previously can start igniting with momentum.
Examine your work. Commit to what matters and get rid of the noise. Give yourself a deadline and tell five people about that lingering dream.
See what these new constraints do for your power and execution. If you’re serious, then of course, you would do this for yourself.
3 thoughts on “Using Constraints To Get Clarity”
Thank you, Don. This is precisely what I needed to hear. In our present age of multi-tasking mania, it’s far too easy to get swept up in the illusion that juggling many things (often haphazardly) = success. I can tell you from direct experience that it most DEFINITELY does not. Constraints ARE a form of commitment. We would all be happier + more productive if we made a vow to “commit to what matters and get rid of the noise.” Now, if I could only write the perfect haiku to encapsulate all of this…
Yes, please write that haiku! I agree, constraints are commitment. Maybe having a lot of things going hides the fear of committing fully. Thanks for sharing, Matthew.