Should You Accept Your Constraints or Try to Improve Them?

One book that had a huge impact on me was The Power of Full Engagement by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr. The book’s thesis was simple: time-management doesn’t work because your energy is more limited than time.

Before the book, I used to get frustrated with my inability to follow my own schedules. I’d carefully carve out chunks of time for studying, working on my business, exercise, reading and more. But then I’d fail to follow it. I’d break down and wonder why I couldn’t be as productive as all those other people I admired.

Reading the book clued me into a constraint: that any sustainable workload had to be balanced in terms of energy spent and energy recovered.

Since discovering that constraint, I’ve built systems into my life that make sure I’m working sustainably. During the MIT Challenge, for instance, I often had to spend 8-12 hours a day studying. But I never once worked in the evening or on weekends for the entire year.

Accepting, Not Removing, Constraints

What’s interesting to me isn’t the book, although it’s a good one, but that it was an improvement which came from accepting a constraint, not freeing myself from one.

The stereotype of self-improvement is that it contains a lot of wishful thinking about liberating yourself from imagined constraints. That is, it’s fears, traditions or lack of the correct method that prevents you from achieving your full potential. If you could only eliminate these harmful constraints, you’d live a fuller, better life.

But interestingly, for me, I’d say about half of the best insights that helped me live better have come from recognizing hidden constraints rather than realizing old ones were illusory.

Habits are another great example. The basis of much of the habit-changing methods myself and many other have used comes from recognizing just how hard it is to change your behavior. Why is something as simple as going to the gym every day or flossing regularly so hard to stick to?

The solution comes from recognizing an additional constraint—namely that your life is silently guided by all these automatic, unconscious behavioral programs. Seeing that your willpower is weak and generally only effective at very short-term bursts of behavior change hardly feels empowering. But adding this additional constraint makes it possible to engineer plans that will actually produce long-term differences.

Growth Mindset and Finding Hidden Constraints

Growth mindset has gotten a lot of popular support recently (and some criticism). The basic idea is simple: if you believe your abilities and talents can be improved, you’ll perform better than if you believe they are a fixed constraint that must be accepted.

On a general level, this is probably true. If you believe everything is fixed, then it’s going to be pretty hard to summon the determination to work hard at it. Since working hard matters regardless, a general belief in growth will outperform a general belief that growth is impossible.

However, on a more detailed level, it may be the case that broadly believing everything is improvable isn’t the best approach. Accepting some constraints may help you focus your energies on the things which are actually most susceptible to improvement.

Which Constraints Should You Accept?

The best constraints to accept seem to be, first, the ones which actually exist.

Schwartz and Loehr’s book is based on their coaching experiences and an analogy with athletes, not hard science, so their theory could be wrong in some important ways. However, more basic research by Baumeister on ego depletion seems to support the idea that there is at least some internal resource that the brain is trying to manage when deciding to exert effort.

Habits also have a scientifically verifiable basis. Starting with Pavlov’s dogs, we know that many behavioral patterns are conditioned automatically. Even if the science doesn’t provide the exact details for the best way to start a new habit, the idea of habits as a broad constraint on our behavior is pretty solid.

Other constraints are more controversial.

Consider intelligence. Wikipedia states that the heritability of intelligence is roughly 50-80%. But, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham states in his recent book here, that the consensus has shifted to thinking that intelligence is “probably mostly environmental”. Even if it is 80%, heritability doesn’t imply it can’t be modified. So what is it? 80% genes? Mostly environmental? Largely fixed? Largely malleable?

Intelligence itself probably isn’t a single attribute. It might be more like a collection of different abilities, all with different degrees of fixedness. General-purpose working memory and fluid intelligence are probably difficult to improve. Task-specific working memory and background knowledge are probably a lot easier to improve.

I’m not an intelligence researcher by any means, but as an interested layman, I find the scientific debate to be quite confusing. For the average person who isn’t interested in digging through the research, what chance do they have at determining whether they should treat their intelligence a constraint to accept or improve?

Intelligence is a particularly well-researched example. Other possible constraints you consider in your life may have no research at all. The decision to treat it as fixed or something that can be modified therefore amounts to a personal assessment.

Experimenting with Constraints

Since the evidence on whether a constraint is real or imagined is often murky, I think it pays to experiment with your strategies.

Perhaps you’re a somewhat introverted person, but you want to meet a romantic partner. What should you do?

One experiment would be to try improving on that constraint. You could go to bars and social gatherings and try to improve your ability to socialize in group settings. I know a lot of people who were self-proclaimed introverts who this strategy worked for.

Another experiment could be to try accepting the constraint and working with it. Maybe you get your friends to help set you up, or try online dating where you can meet people one-on-one. Instead of fighting your natural instincts, use the constraint to focus your strategy into areas where it doesn’t matter as much.

Or imagine you want to start a business, but you feel you don’t have the time to start one.

One experiment would be to improve on this constraint. Set aside time to work on your business on top of your normal schedule and deal with the intensity. Maybe you’ll enjoy working on the business so much that you’ll realize the constraint was imagined and you can get work done and build the business simultaneously.

Going the other direction: you might experiment with the belief that time is a real constraint. That might push you to request a brief leave of absence from your job—giving you a deadline to get your business up and running.

What all these situations have in common is that there is some ambiguity about the nature of the constraint: it might be rigid, flexible or somewhere in between. Testing out accepting and improving the constraint can sometimes help you resolve the question of what is the best approach to pursue when experts and science cannot.

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  • Based on the work around ‘autopoiesis’ by Humberto Maturana, I came to the understanding that everything in nature starts small or is in some way constrained then grows past its constraints almost exclusively because it has them.

  • tyelmene

    Based on the work around ‘autopoiesis’ by Humberto Maturana, I came to the understanding that everything in nature starts small or is in some way constrained then grows past its constraints almost exclusively because it has them.

  • Edward Ashley Latimore III

    Look at what the top 10 percent looks like for something. If you can’t get there, it’s a restraint. If you can get to the top 10-20 percent, it’s a weak restraint, but if you have strong fundamentals in whatever your discipline is and your strengths are developing, it probably won’t hurt to work on it. If it doesn’t look like you can get into the 20 percent, it’s a strong restraint and it’s probably not worth isolating time to work on.

  • Edward Ashley Latimore III

    Look at what the top 10 percent looks like for something. If you can’t get there, it’s a restraint. If you can get to the top 10-20 percent, it’s a weak restraint, but if you have strong fundamentals in whatever your discipline is and your strengths are developing, it probably won’t hurt to work on it. If it doesn’t look like you can get into the 20 percent, it’s a strong restraint and it’s probably not worth isolating time to work on.

  • Julian

    Intersting to read this about energy, because a few days ago I had the same thoughts, that energy is more important to be productive as time. Even with a well-ordered schedule I often was not really productive, but on other days I was and I wondered why. Now I think it’s not only important to manage my time, but also keep an eye on my energy level and allow me to do nothing or just rest and do it later, if I feel depleted. And it works better and it feels well.

  • Julian

    Intersting to read this about energy, because a few days ago I had the same thoughts, that energy is more important to be productive as time. Even with a well-ordered schedule I often was not really productive, but on other days I was and I wondered why. Now I think it’s not only important to manage my time, but also keep an eye on my energy level and allow me to do nothing or just rest and do it later, if I feel depleted. And it works better and it feels well.

  • As an introvert, and someone who was once extremely reserved and wracked with social anxiety, I’ve found that both methods you mentioned are doable.

    I began by testing the constraint in a measured way: going to social events that I knew multiple friends of mine would be at also. Dipping my toe in the water, so to speak.

    This helped me overcome almost all my social anxiety, with one notable exception: talking to women I didn’t know.

    At this point, I accepted the constraint that I simply wasn’t going to be any good at this, and I began using online dating. Soon after that, I met my future wife.

    And interestingly enough, now I have no trouble at all talking to women I don’t know. Go figure.

  • Aaron Wolfson

    As an introvert, and someone who was once extremely reserved and wracked with social anxiety, I’ve found that both methods you mentioned are doable.

    I began by testing the constraint in a measured way: going to social events that I knew multiple friends of mine would be at also. Dipping my toe in the water, so to speak.

    This helped me overcome almost all my social anxiety, with one notable exception: talking to women I didn’t know.

    At this point, I accepted the constraint that I simply wasn’t going to be any good at this, and I began using online dating. Soon after that, I met my future wife.

    And interestingly enough, now I have no trouble at all talking to women I don’t know. Go figure.

  • Chung Chin

    Very interesting thought – working with the constraint, rather than working on improving the constraint. I like what you quoted as an example in the last few paragraphs on starting a business. It is really helpful in broadening the thinking for solutions.

  • Chung Chin

    Very interesting thought – working with the constraint, rather than working on improving the constraint. I like what you quoted as an example in the last few paragraphs on starting a business. It is really helpful in broadening the thinking for solutions.

  • Umm Yahya

    Genetically hardwired constraints are important to identify, especially in children. I once attended a brilliant talk by a man who detailed how he he struggled hopelessly in school, until recieving a breakthrough diagnosis by a singularly astute specialist (whom his parents had researched and traveled miles to see). This specialist assessed him, then explained to his family that he had a learning disability that meant he would *never* be able to learn to read nor spell proficiently. So, rather than waste his time learning to read, he and his family then focused on accomodations for his academic journey – audiobooks, virtual textbooks, text-to-speech computer software. This continued all the way into University (one Professor even taped himself dictating an entire textbook for him). So he went from a “hopeless” student to earning his PhD.

    The danger, though, is how do you know something is a set-in-stone constraint for a child and something is malleable? This is the ongoing dilemma of teachers, and the good ones try their best to get a grasp of the true reality, or else err on the side of hope.

  • Umm Yahya

    Genetically hardwired constraints are important to identify, especially in children. I once attended a brilliant talk by a man who detailed how he he struggled hopelessly in school, until recieving a breakthrough diagnosis by a singularly astute specialist (whom his parents had researched and traveled miles to see). This specialist assessed him, then explained to his family that he had a learning disability that meant he would *never* be able to learn to read nor spell proficiently. So, rather than waste his time learning to read, he and his family then focused on accomodations for his academic journey – audiobooks, virtual textbooks, text-to-speech computer software. This continued all the way into University (one Professor even taped himself dictating an entire textbook for him). So he went from a “hopeless” student to earning his PhD.

    The danger, though, is how do you know something is a set-in-stone constraint for a child and something is malleable? This is the ongoing dilemma of teachers, and the good ones try their best to get a grasp of the true reality, or else err on the side of hope.

  • Albatrossed

    Very interesting, once again. I’d add, as Daniel Goleman says, that not only energy, but also focus are scarce resources. That is my case, at least. Although this is a constrain that I wouldn’t want to take for granted for me. On the contrary, I’m trying to imporve my concentration. Any thoughts?

  • Albatrossed

    Very interesting, once again. I’d add, as Daniel Goleman says, that not only energy, but also focus are scarce resources. That is my case, at least. Although this is a constrain that I wouldn’t want to take for granted for me. On the contrary, I’m trying to imporve my concentration. Any thoughts?

  • Scott Young

    I think the two are probably related to each other. Focus seems like a specific case of energy.

  • Scott Young

    I think the two are probably related to each other. Focus seems like a specific case of energy.

  • Scott Young

    That’s why I recommend experimenting–because it’s often very hard to know what’s malleable and what’s not. But you can do short-term tests to see which mindset is more productive for you.

  • Scott Young

    That’s why I recommend experimenting–because it’s often very hard to know what’s malleable and what’s not. But you can do short-term tests to see which mindset is more productive for you.

  • Love your thoughts on experimentation with constraints. I am currently taking a sociology class at my university, and your post reminds me quite a bit about the concepts of both role conflict (incompatible expectations that arise from two or more statuses held by the same person) and role strain (a given status entails conflicting role expectations). Because of my science background, however, I feel the need to clarify a common misconception about heritability. Heritability does not indicate the degree to which a characteristic is determined by genetics and cannot be calculated for a specific individual; rather, it indicates the degree to which genes determine variation in a certain characteristic within a population. So when we say that the heritability of intelligence is roughly 50-80%, that does not mean that genes account for 50-80% of someone’s intelligence. It means that 50-80% of the variance in intelligence in a given population is determined by genes.

    As you have mentioned, high heritability does not mean that environmental factors cannot influence the expression of a characteristic. In most developed countries, the heritability of human height is high, indicating that genetic differences are responsible for most of the variation in height. It would be incorrect to conclude that human height cannot be changed by alterations in the environment. Indeed, height decreased in several European cities during World War II owing to hunger and disease, and height can be increased dramatically by the administration of growth hormone to children. In other words, the absence of environmental variation in a characteristic does not mean that characteristic will not respond to environmental change. Apologies for the tangent; I just felt compelled to comment.

  • Nita Jain

    Love your thoughts on experimentation with constraints. I am currently taking a sociology class at my university, and your post reminds me quite a bit about the concepts of both role conflict (incompatible expectations that arise from two or more statuses held by the same person) and role strain (a given status entails conflicting role expectations). Because of my science background, however, I feel the need to clarify a common misconception about heritability. Heritability does not indicate the degree to which a characteristic is determined by genetics and cannot be calculated for a specific individual; rather, it indicates the degree to which genes determine variation in a certain characteristic within a population. So when we say that the heritability of intelligence is roughly 50-80%, that does not mean that genes account for 50-80% of someone’s intelligence. It means that 50-80% of the variance in intelligence in a given population is determined by genes.

    As you have mentioned, high heritability does not mean that environmental factors cannot influence the expression of a characteristic. In most developed countries, the heritability of human height is high, indicating that genetic differences are responsible for most of the variation in height. It would be incorrect to conclude that human height cannot be changed by alterations in the environment. Indeed, height decreased in several European cities during World War II owing to hunger and disease, and height can be increased dramatically by the administration of growth hormone to children. In other words, the absence of environmental variation in a characteristic does not mean that characteristic will not respond to environmental change. Apologies for the tangent; I just felt compelled to comment.

  • Aleksandr Om

    One week of a grad student in linguistics looks kind of like this: I sit in class and listen to words, read words, write down words. Then, I go back home and read some more words, think about words, and produce my own words. Then I go back to school and reflect on those words, combine with other people’s words, and come back home and create a new set of words based on the words exchanged. I also have a part-time job where I listen to words and transcribe them.

    All this takes a huge amount of energy, but I don’t lack in will-power. Ever since I read the book by Carol Dweck I think I have completely changed the way I relate to studying and work. However, I did notice I would still break down periodically, where I would just find myself sitting in sheer mental exhaustion. I thought I could solve it by meditating, taking long walks in nature, or exercising with weights. The last one helped somewhat, but they were all surprisingly ineffective ways to restore energy. Then I had an eye opening conversation with my mom, when she told me that the solution may not be to still my mind or expand physical energy, but produce something in order to achieve some balance with the huge amount of input I am exposed to.

    She suggested I go back to painting because that is not a verbal activity, but it is creative, and a way to transform the input into something and get it out of my system. So I sat down once for several hours and just painted. It only took me one painting to feel better, and I don’t even feel the need to paint anymore. Sometimes, just by looking at the painting supplies and knowing that I have the option to sit down and do this again, allows me to continue work. Isn’t that interesting?

  • Aleksandr Om

    One week of a grad student in linguistics looks kind of like this: I sit in class and listen to words, read words, write down words. Then, I go back home and read some more words, think about words, and produce my own words. Then I go back to school and reflect on those words, combine with other people’s words, and come back home and create a new set of words based on the words exchanged. I also have a part-time job where I listen to words and transcribe them.

    All this takes a huge amount of energy, but I don’t lack in will-power. Ever since I read the book by Carol Dweck I think I have completely changed the way I relate to studying and work. However, I did notice I would still break down periodically, where I would just find myself sitting in sheer mental exhaustion. I thought I could solve it by meditating, taking long walks in nature, or exercising with weights. The last one helped somewhat, but they were all surprisingly ineffective ways to restore energy. Then I had an eye opening conversation with my mom, when she told me that the solution may not be to still my mind or expand physical energy, but produce something in order to achieve some balance with the huge amount of input I am exposed to.

    She suggested I go back to painting because that is not a verbal activity, but it is creative, and a way to transform the input into something and get it out of my system. So I sat down once for several hours and just painted. It only took me one painting to feel better, and I don’t even feel the need to paint anymore. Sometimes, just by looking at the painting supplies and knowing that I have the option to sit down and do this again, allows me to continue work. Isn’t that interesting?

  • Luiz Machado

    Hi Scott,

    I have been following your blog for a couple years and I think I have a recent story that encapsulates all of your teachings about focusing on your craft.

    Charlie Puth is a 23 year old musician who has been working on his craft for many years. Putting in the thousands of hours of deep practice. His “first” song got 280 million views in the first month.

    Cal you are going to love this 3min video where he tells his story.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnRHZBoApqI

  • Luiz Machado

    Hi Scott,

    I have been following your blog for a couple years and I think I have a recent story that encapsulates all of your teachings about focusing on your craft.

    Charlie Puth is a 23 year old musician who has been working on his craft for many years. Putting in the thousands of hours of deep practice. His “first” song got 280 million views in the first month.

    Cal you are going to love this 3min video where he tells his story.https://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnRHZB...

  • imran Ali

    In my experience as Scott has stated Focus and energy is very closley linked. My personal experience of increased energy and focus was when I dropped some regular habits which were really hindering my energy levels;in my case watching too many movies and TV shows. After this I experienced more focus when studying something and the understanding of what I would have found previuosly difficult to understand became about80-90% easier. It was like a mental detox flush.
    So after thinking about it a while I came one conclusion that our minds or counciousness is like a big bowl if filled with too many objects it will us down and deplete our energy levels severley which in turn affects things like focus,understnding etc. So personally once I removed or at least dramtically reduced the other non-essential objects from my ‘bowl’ I found a great amount of time,mental and growing physical energy available to me. After this its just a case prioritising what you what/need doing.
    Maybe the constraint is taking away non-essentials that are sucking too much energy away and coming back to them at a later time when you have more time and energy to complete them?

  • imran Ali

    In my experience as Scott has stated Focus and energy is very closley linked. My personal experience of increased energy and focus was when I dropped some regular habits which were really hindering my energy levels;in my case watching too many movies and TV shows. After this I experienced more focus when studying something and the understanding of what I would have found previuosly difficult to understand became about80-90% easier. It was like a mental detox flush.
    So after thinking about it a while I came one conclusion that our minds or counciousness is like a big bowl if filled with too many objects it will us down and deplete our energy levels severley which in turn affects things like focus,understnding etc. So personally once I removed or at least dramtically reduced the other non-essential objects from my ‘bowl’ I found a great amount of time,mental and growing physical energy available to me. After this its just a case prioritising what you what/need doing.
    Maybe the constraint is taking away non-essentials that are sucking too much energy away and coming back to them at a later time when you have more time and energy to complete them?

  • Douglas

    Curious why you decided to become a pescatarian. The world’s fisheries are in complete collapse and if you’re eating oceanic fish, they are likely loaded with mercury and fukishima radiation. Sustainable fishing a myth. I recommend see the film “Cowspiracy” if you really believe any kind of animal product is really sustainable.

  • Douglas

    Curious why you decided to become a pescatarian. The world’s fisheries are in complete collapse and if you’re eating oceanic fish, they are likely loaded with mercury and fukishima radiation. Sustainable fishing a myth. I recommend see the film “Cowspiracy” if you really believe any kind of animal product is really sustainable.

  • Roark Peters

    Thank you, for writing so, great post. I like reading something like this and saving them for myself, into mine collection. I like this one a lot, it will be next in my collection after this 5 Leadership Strategies That Get Results .If someone interests in deferent topics like this, you may write me and I will be happy to deal them with you.

  • Roark Peters

    Thank you, for writing so, great post. I like reading something like this and saving them for myself, into mine collection. I like this one a lot, it will be next in my collection after this 5 Leadership Strategies That Get Results .If someone interests in deferent topics like this, you may write me and I will be happy to deal them with you.

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