Creative Constraints

Is more choice always better? Our culture of consuming would seemingly make that to be the case. More choices, more options, all with greater convenience than ever before. Constraints are definitely a bad thing, right?

I disagree with the philosophy that more choice is always better. I believe that sometimes imposing additional constraints on a problem allow you to find truly superior solutions. From a purely logical point of view this might not seem to make any sense. How could reducing your amount of choices improve your solution? As illogical as it may seem, I’ve found that to be the case.

As some of you may know, I spent a good part of the last two and a half years installing habits in myself. I was waking up early, exercising for over an hour every day, not watching television and I switched to a completely vegetarian diet (which I still follow today). From an outsiders perspective I must have looked like I had gone crazy.

From the traditional perspective of more choice is better, what I was doing was completely masochistic. Creating more restrictions for my life seemed to be a completely insane exercise. At least from an outsiders perspective.

But from the inside I began to see things quite differently. When I started restricting away the lower value aspects of my life I was able to fit in a lot more higher value aspects. By restricting myself I was forcing myself to get productive and creative in adding more value to my life.

Joining toastmasters, starting this blog, coaching soccer and various other incredibly valuable activities I took up wouldn’t have been possible if I continued to permit lower value activities.

Traditional economics assumes people rationally invest their resources into the pursuits that will yield the most value. I think this is a little naive. Most people invest their time and energy into the path that gives the most short-term gain, the easiest path. Even when a slightly more difficult path could yield considerably more value.

This notion of constraints doesn’t just mean limiting activities. It also happens when we restrict our resources. I’ve noticed that some of my most productive and energetic moments happen when I am already busy. A mild restriction on time or energy can create the illusion of scarcity and drive you to take action.

Currently I am in my winter break for my term and I noticed it was hard to be as productive as I was when I had school to do on top of everything else. When I felt that there was an infinite supply of time I accomplished less than when there was a restriction.

Utilizing Constraints

Most of our problems don’t arrive out of a lack of choices. They lack out of a poor quality of choices. Every day you and I are flooded with options for how to spend our time, energy and money. Watch television, go to work, eat at this restaurant, join this gym, etc.

An abundance of choices and a lack of quality. So our brain, unable to process this many choices seems to flow down a sort of middle road. The options that will provide us with a fair short-term return for little initial investment. Unfortunately the hidden gems of opportunity go unnoticed in the heaps of trash.

The start of improving your life is to cut off all the choices that are below your minimum threshold for long-term quality. This will remove the heaps of worthless trash from your life so that you have a chance to see the true diamonds that lie waiting there.

Determine what activities you indulge in that really don’t contribute much value to your life. Look at what activities are sapping your resources and providing very little long-term benefits. Go through and replace these habits with something more valuable.

This method of imposing additional constraints doesn’t just affect your patterns of behavior, it affects your decisions. Have you settled for a career, relationship or set of circumstances simply because you didn’t declare a higher standard for yourself?

When people go about making difficult decisions the major worry that comes in most peoples mind is, “What if I fail?” That is a legitimate worry, but I think it often overrides the far greater worry of, “What if I settle?” I think there is a far greater chance of you settling for less then you are capable of then that of failure.

Creating constraints can in some cases, restrict you to a lower position than you would be in otherwise. I’d be lying to you if restricting behavior or decisions can sometimes leave you with a sudden lack of effective options. You certainly can go overboard in your restrictive attempts, but I think that this is not the problem for most people.

If I had a magic calculator that could sum up all the increased value I received by using this practice of restricting lesser options and subtract from it all the times I lacked choice, I suspect the amount of gain would be huge.

Raise your standards and restrict the aspects of your life and your decisions that don’t provide enough value. Start imposing some additional constraints. Most people fear failure, I fear mediocrity. Just looking out at the world I think my fear is more justified.

  • Wulfen

    Joel (from joelonsoftware) seems to agree with you 🙂 :

    It’s fun how computer usability can often have a parallel with “life usability”.

    Some people say that I’m square-minded because I like to measure and monitor all things that matter. I find, OTOH, that by putting part of my life on rails what I achieve is having less clutter on my mind so I can redirect my energy where it matters most. By systematizing parts of your life you have more time and resources to pursue other avenues.

    BTW Scott if you wanna enter the field of pickup, I’d daresay that there, systematization is counterproductive, while being impredictable and chaotic is loads better. But it’s a whole different game, on one side you have *systematic habits* and on the other side you have *spontaneous behaviors in relationships* so there is no incongruence.

    BTW, I am thinking about joining Toastmasters in Spain, I would like to know your opinion on what did you learn there. I know Steve Pavlina has found them very useful. My areas of interest of improving my public speaking are for entreprenurship and for pickup (storytelling and captivating the audience).

    Rock Hard, Ride Free,


  • Scott Young

    Thanks Wulfen,

    I completely agree with you on the whole systemization versus spontenaity front. They both have pros and cons. I mentioned in an earlier blog entry that I did some personal-development spring cleaning so-to-speak about four months ago, dumping many of the habits I had established. I was entering a new situation and felt shaking loose some of that structure would allow me to take on more opportunities. I think in another month or two I’ll start taking another look at rebuilding. It’s a cycle.

    Relationships definitely are unpredictable and they are an area where I am still very much learning. Not just intimate ones but any relationship or interpersonal interaction. I sense underlying patterns and actions, but I’m not at the point where I fully understand.

    Currently I’m working on my own ability for spontaneous discipline where I can make effective decisions and act on opportunities without having to rely on as much structure. Still in the works though, so no blog entries about that yet.

    As for Toastmasters,

    Toastmasters is ultimately a communication building program. It improves your ability to effectively communicate. Although the focus is on one to many styles of communication, I have found it improves my ability to converse and interact in all situations. It reminds me of something Neil Strauss said in The Game that improving that area of his life improved all his relationships and interactions. I believe the same is true of Toastmasters.

    Hell even if you think I’m wrong, you can drop in as a guest for free in most places just to check it out.

    If you ever think of starting a blog/site in English don’t hesitate to tell me.


  • Helgi

    This reminded me of a book (I haven’t actually read yet) called The Paradox of Choice. It talks about this more in terms of buyer’s remorse, I think, but the underlying thought patterns are the same though.

    The basic thesis of the book, AFAIK, is that the more options you have to choose from, the less pleased you will be with whatever you end up choosing. So if you’re buying a car, you will be happier with car B if you only had a choice of cars A and B than if you had the choice of A, B, C, and D. The more options you have the more liberty the mind has to go wild with “what if.”

    The aspect of this you talk about in the article is something I can relate to very well, and I imagine this is going to be one of the main problems upcoming generations will face. There are so many different opportunities out there, such vast availability of information on things to do, that people end up never going beyond the surface of anything.

    Enforcing artificial constraints is something people didn’t need as much, say, 50 years ago, but these days it’s absolutely vital to be able to focus on anything.

  • Scott Young

    I completely agree, Helgi.

    Daniel Gilbert said in, Stumbling on Happiness, that irreversible choices cause the least amount of stress.