Mar 31, 2021
book icon
 min read

Positive constraints: A weird little trick to level up your life

This article took 19 hours to write. The week after, I wrote another one in <5 hours. 

The only difference; I used positive constraints.

Billionaire founders, best-selling authors, and artistic creators use positive constraints too.

Here's how you can use positive constraints in your own life to incubate creativity, hockey-stick learning, and make high-impact decisions.

What is a positive constraint?

A positive constraint is a boundary or limitation that leads to a good outcome. 

Some examples from everyday life:

  • The lines that mark your lane stop you from swerving into oncoming traffic.
  • Order a box of takeaway Pad Thai noodles, and you get portion control (consider the opposite; a buffet)
  • Twitter constraints your tweet to 280 characters. This forces you to cut to the core of your message. 

Things get interesting when you apply constraints to your own life. I'll show you a few examples in a moment, but first, it's worth understanding why we even need constraints in the first place. 

You need them more than ever because too much of a good thing has become a bad thing.

The paradox of choice

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz underscores how our world has become a place of paralyzing abundance. Schwartz shows us how the ridiculous amount of choice today means we are less likely to choose, more likely to mess up when we do, and more frustrated overall. 

We have too much choice. Whether you're buying a new pair of running shoes, choosing an Airbnb for a romantic weekend getaway, or swiping for a soulmate on Tinder, everyday decisions spark anxiety.

Have you ever struggled to choose a new series on Netflix? Netflix users waste an average of 18 minutes per day just trying to select something. Twice as much as cable TV viewers.

How do you feel trying to choose dinner from a restaurant menu with 18+ options for mains? 

I recently counted 13 options for non-dairy milk at my local supermarket, for Pete's sake!

Oh yes, it's terrible, and it's only getting worse. But Schwartz offers a simple framework to help: become a satisficer, not a maximizer.

A maximizer looks far and wide in search of the best possible option. A satisficer finds one that's good enough. Trying to maximize all the time is a recipe for unhappiness. Satisficers avoid the temptation to tick every little box when making a choice. Satisficers only tick the boxes that matter. Satisficers constrain their options.

We are talking about positive constraints, of course. And they do more than help you fight the tyranny of everyday decisions.

The right constraints will help you to make high-impact decisions like billionaire founders, incubate creativity like artists, and build world-class skills in any area you desire.

How to use Constraints to make High-level Decisions

Consider business icons who wear the same clothes every day. 

  • Albert Einstein owned several copies of the same gray suit.
  • Steve Jobs repped the same black turtleneck, blue jeans, and sneakers. 
  • Mark Zuckerberg opts for a boring gray t-shirt with jeans (when he is not in front of the jury) 

It's not poor fashion sense. It's strategic. By removing low-impact decisions at scale (in this case, what to wear), you save brainpower for high-impact decisions. 

To understand why this works, we must look at the relationship between decision-making and willpower.

Willpower is a mental muscle, and like your bicep muscles, it is exhausted with every rep. You replenish your willpower through recovery (mostly sleep). Gary Keller, the author of the book The 1 Thing, explores this relationship when he mentions willpower is not on will-call. 

"The more you exert your willpower, the faster it will be depleted. That is why willpower is typically highest for most people at the start of the day, before they begin making choices, controlling emotions, and handling tasks. Every decision exercises your willpower and exhausts it" - Gary Keller

So if every decision you make in a given day reduces your willpower, make fewer decisions, and you'll have more willpower for important decisions. There are a few ways to do this.

  • Broke: Make the same decisions every day
  • Woke: Eliminate a few decisions from your life.
  • Bespoke: eliminate decisions at scale.

Wearing the same clothes or eating the same breakfast each day are simple applications of positive constraints. Let's look at some more exciting examples. 

Enter, Tim Ferriss.

With five New York Times bestsellers, the #1 business podcast in the world, and a jaw-dropping list of successful angel investments, it's easy to see why Ferriss had to become world-class at using constraints.

Ferriss's success thrust him into the spotlight of the publishing and investing worlds, which led to a tidal wave of opportunity. 

In one article, Ferriss explains how his success as an author led to a crazy amount of unsolicited books sent to him for review. 30-40 books per week. In another article, Ferriss talks about how his reputation in the world of investing made him the target for hundreds of unsolicited email pitches and cold introductions every week. 

In both cases, too much opportunity Hiroshima-d his inbound systems, which overwhelmed him and threatened to destroy the quality of his decisions:

"I have made many good fast decisions, but I have nearly never made good rushed decisions. The former can be made from a place of calm, whereas the latter comes from a place of turbulence and blurred judgment...How can we create an environment that fosters better, often non-obvious, decisions?" - Tim Ferriss

Ferriss committed to *not* reading any new books and quit startup investing. In both cases, he found the one decision that removed the need to make hundreds of others and reclaimed the environment needed to make better decisions overall.

Like Ferriss, Einstein, Jobs, and Zuckerberg...what decisions can you make in your life to clear your schedule and foster an environment to make high-level decisions?

Constraints Incubate Creativity

In 1993 a psychologist at Columbia University, Patricia Stokes, demonstrated how constraints lead to creativity.

In her study, rats were forced to press a bar using their right paws only. And they figured out how to push the bar in more ways than another group of rats that could use both feet. 

The constraint led to creative thinking. And it works for humans too.

Remember 'Green Eggs and Ham' by Dr. Seuss?  This video shows how constraints played a massive part in the book's success.

Dr. Seuss was challenged to write an entertaining children's book using 50 different words only. He accepted the challenge, worked within the constraint, and Green Eggs and Ham became one of the best-selling children's books in history.

You'll find many more situations of constraint-driven creativity in the world of art.

Danish artist Michael Johansson creates what looks like real-life Tetris. His constraints are (limited) space and second-hand items.


What is it about constraints that make us more creative?

It's situational. Scott Sonenshine explores this in his book: Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less - and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined.

When something is abundant, we have no incentive to use it in new, novel ways. But when something is scarce, we think unconventionally because we have to.

Consider a paperclip. In an office, you probably use a paperclip as a little thing that binds paper. 

But what if you were stranded on a desert island? Suddenly a paper clip becomes much more than a little paper binding thingy. It becomes a compass, a fishing hook, a finger split, and has a hilarious amount of other applications.

If you need creativity, look for constraints. Without them we follow the path of least resistance which leads to status-quo thinking. And status-quo thinking won't help you in the creative department. 

Constraints accelerate skill development.

Best-selling author and blogger James Clear tells the story of how constraints put Brazil on the world map of soccer.

In the 1930s, Futsal exploded in popularity in Brazil. Futsal is a soccer-like game played in a small indoor arena with a less-than-bouncy ball and small teams. As a result, Futsal players get 600% more ball time than soccer players, which forces them to develop creative ball-handling skills.

The constraints of Futsal bred a generation of super-talented soccer players, and Brazil won 3 World Cups.

James Clear uses constraints to drive his development as a writer. When he started blogging, he committed to publishing weekly on Monday and Thursday, no matter what.

"The schedule is my constraint. It doesn't matter how good or how bad the article is. It doesn't matter how long or how short it is. I have to get something out every Monday and Thursday" - James Clear

As I mentioned earlier, this article took me 19 hours to write. I had no constraints, just a word doc and a vague idea of articles I might like to write. So I brainstormed for 4 hours with no clear path.

After realizing my mistake I applied constraints on my next article: I committed to writing about the topic of the book I was reading: sleep. The subject was my constraint. I got my arse into gear and completed the article in 5 hours.

Now that you know about the power of constraints, how will you apply them to your life?

I'll leave you with some parting words of advice from James Clear:

"In many ways, reaching the next level of performance is simply a matter of choosing the right constraints" - James Clear

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter

Actually don't, because it doesn't exist. It's a fugayzi. It's a whazy. It's a woozie. It's fairy dust. It doesn't exist (yet).

Thanks for joining our newsletter.
Oops! Something went wrong.