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.

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