The power of constraints

by Jack on June 2010

Most of us dislike constraints and limitations, especially when they appear in our lives as barriers to our goals. We often believe that without certain constraints that are present in our life situation, we would be able to do more what we wished, more of the time. Presumably this would help us to feel happier, and to enjoy a better experience of life.

The underlying belief usually sounds something like this: if my life situation didn’t include X, then I would be able to be / do / have Y and I would be happier. Unfortunately, this belief is usually not exactly true. Like the hedonic treadmill seen in economics and psychology, removing one constraint from a person’s life will simply uncover another constraint, and then another. Constraints and limitations will always exist, and rather than wishing they weren’t there, a more useful approach is to work around them and within them, using creativity and imagination.

Without constraints, any kind of real decision making is impossible. Consider a hypothetical dialogue between a client and an architect.

“Build me a house!”
“Anywhere you like.”
“Who is it for?”
“Whoever you want.”
“What’s the budget?”
“Spend as much as you want.”
“Is there a deadline?”
“Take as much time as you need.”

Clearly, this process of specifying the client’s needs is going nowhere useful. If the house is to be built at all, the designer will need to make some arbitrary decisions, and hope that the result aligns somehow with the client’s actual wishes.

Constraints have a way of focusing our attention on the most important things at hand. Operating within finite budgets of money, energy, time and other resources, we are able to make clear, definitive decisions, set priorities, and actually get things accomplished.

Despite claiming to hate limitations and constraints, we revere those who creatively transcend them

Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing (Tyler Durden)

We are generally less impressed by someone who creates something valuable with millions of dollars and a staff of 20 than we are with someone who used off-the-shelf parts and duct tape (metaphorically or literally) to come up with a more creative solution that is nearly as good. The memorable scene from Apollo 13 in which the NASA engineers designed an alternative air filtration system to save the astronauts in the capsule is a vivid example of this. It’s such a powerful scene both because of the high stakes and the tight constraints on the ground-based designers.

Limitations and constraints stimulate creativity and novel solutions, while overly abundant resources lead to waste. When gasoline was 10 cents a gallon, car engine power was created through size and brute strength. Now that fuel is much more expensive, and emissions standards more stringent, automotive engineers have responded by designing systems that are much more efficient. Tougher constraints have led to more creative and better designs.

For a human example, consider that the cheerful Nick Vujicic, who was born without arms or legs, is in high demand as a motivational speaker. People greatly respect his drive to live a positive life and make a contribution in the face of his physical limitations.

In summary, the process of working around constraints often gives rise to amazing resources of previously untapped energy and creativity. While we may complain about them and wish they weren’t there, the constraints we face can often be our greatest gifts and our greatest teachers.

The thing that we think is holding us back, may not be the thing that is actually holding us back

Retirement forces you to stop thinking that it is your job that holds you back. For most people the depressing truth is that they aren’t that organized, disciplined, or motivated. (Philip Greenspun)

Many people with jobs have a fantasy about all the amazing things they would do if they didn’t need to work. In reality, if they had the drive and commitment to do actually do those things, they wouldn’t let a job get in the way. (Paul Buchheit)

Many of us think that we’re constrained by time, or money, or social connections, or our obligations to others. If we had Warren Buffett’s money, or Bill Clinton’s connections, or if we didn’t have all these responsibilities in our lives, we’d surely be accomplishing far more than we are right now.

However, is this really true? A network of constraints in our life also provides a structure and framework for getting things done. Completely removing certain kinds of constraints in a person’s life – as in the case of many lottery winners losing most of their financial barriers, for example – may not lead to the best outcomes in the long term. In fact, receiving a large sum of money suddenly, with no framework or context for intelligently managing it, leads many lottery winners to spend their winnings quickly and to wind up worse off than before.

In the specific area of happiness, this question has actually been researched extensively, both for lottery winners and others. Daniel Gilbert describes research demonstrating lottery winners and paraplegics being equally happy one year after their “event” as they were immediately before it. In other words, neither adding a major constraint (making someone unable to walk) nor removing a major constraint (giving someone the financial resources to do whatever they want) had a significant long-term impact on a person’s happiness.

Therefore, blaming one constraint or another that is present in our life situation is generally fruitless, as our happiness is unlikely to depend on it. It’s better to simply acknowledge it and deal with it as it actually is, rather than fantasize about alternative realities.

Living in society with other people creates many different constraints. This is a double-edged sword.

The combined influence of people living together in society tends to push us all into a dynamic equilibrium based on habits and good manners that we were taught as children. The system works most of the time – after all, most of us are able to coexist easily with other people. David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech to the Kenyon College class of 2005 describes the term “well adjusted” in this context – that is, when we are “well adjusted” to living among others, we are able to adjust our perception and think of things from the perspective of other people.

We occasionally get insight into what happens when people live with no such social constraints, usually due to isolation via great wealth or power. For example, the famously eccentric behavior of Michael Jackson and Kim Jong-Il is at least partly due to their reduced exposure to social constraints. With few or no people able to say “no” to them, they can pass their time in a world of their own imagination and fantasy.

The constraints of living in a society can do both good and bad things for us, and peer pressure can be a positive or negative force. The reality is that most of us humans are not calibrated to act radically differently from the peers who surround us. Therefore, choosing the communities that we participate in means, in a very real sense, that we are choosing different sets of constraints for ourselves.

In situations where the world doesn’t establish constraints upon us, it’s important to create our own

Self-discipline could be described the art of effectively designing our own constraints for our lives, and then abiding by them. If most of us were to do exactly what we wished to do at every moment – that is, without any constraint – we’d probably spend a lot of time taking it easy, eating and drinking a little bit too much, watching TV, and maybe lounging on the beach. And not accomplishing very much. (Doing this on vacation is OK – after all, this is what cruise lines were designed for :))

On the other hand, when we have a deep and honest understanding of our own strengths and weaknesses, we are able to create and leverage constraints that support our strengths and counteract our weaknesses. An example of this is when someone with a procrastination habit creates an artificial deadline for an open-ended personal project. This constraint helps them defeat Parkinson’s Law and enables them to actually complete their project. Other constraints that people create for themselves include diets, exercise plans, study plans, and allocating time for work and play.

By creating intelligent constraints for ourselves, in areas that matter, we are able to influence the results that we achieve and to progress more effectively toward our goals.

Constraints aren’t good or bad. They just are.

None of us can see perfectly from the perspective of another person. The “grass is greener” standpoint may lead us to believe that the constraints that others face are smaller or less of a problem than our own, but this is seldom true. By understanding and manipulating the constraints at play within our own lives we can more easily handle the challenges that we face, and reach success on our own terms, and as we choose to define it.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sherri Frost | Self Hypnosis July 18, 2010 at 16:19

Nothing would ever get done if it weren’t for deadlines. Real deadlines! I find that solo business owners struggle with this issue because they make the deadlines and they can change them. Therefore nothing ever gets done. The only thing my mother was ever on time for was a flight because she knew the airplane was not going to wait for her (unlike us).


neonatal nurse practitioner August 6, 2013 at 01:47

First off I want to say terrific blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.

I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your head before writing.
I’ve had trouble clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there. I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or tips? Cheers!


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