- Brendan Stec
Doing more with less choice
Me crossing the 2018 Philadelphia Marathon finish line
The Path Forward
Back in the summer of 2018, I was living in Northern Virginia and just starting to think about how I was going to run the Philadelphia Marathon that November.
In designing my training plan, I was tempted to build flexibility into my running schedule during the work week. If I were to spend roughly 7–12 hours each week just running, why not allow myself to run whenever I could find the time? Before work, during lunch, night-time, etc. I knew my body didn’t care when exactly I ran, as long as I put the miles in.
But I sensed this was a trap.
Instead, I set a few constraints. I chose to run at 5:30 PM each weekday, rain or shine. And because I would run directly from my office, I had no choice but to do basically the same route every time, through the mundane glass and concrete streets of my Tysons Corner office park.
By embracing these constraints, I had few choices to make each day about running...and less opportunity to overwhelm myself. The daily habit set in quickly. The routine was just so simple. Those 3 months in Virginia were the best training foundation I could ask for.
The moral of this story is to show that flexibility and optionality and freedom of choice are great, but sometimes intentionally setting constraints (or embracing the ones you can’t control) and eliminating choice can make setting and achieving objectives much easier.
Why? Put simply, constraints help you define what exactly what you want—or need—to do and then force you to stick to that path forward. And sometimes, this path forward can give you to some unexpected new ideas or results.
In today’s note, I want to explore how this is possible in both business and art.
Constraints and Business
The marketer Seth Godin grew up playing ice hockey on frozen ponds. He talks about how different the game is when it’s played on a pond instead of a rink with boards… if it can still be considered a game at all.
Without the boards, there are no borders to define where the players and puck can go. Without the boards, as he puts it, “it’s just a big lake”. There are no constraints to define the game that’s supposed to be played.
When it came time for Seth to design the altMBA, he knew he had to leverage constraints to avoid creating something that was just a big lake.
Before he started anything else, he defined around seven constraints that would force him to take his shapeless dream and mold it into something more concrete, more manageable, more real. He asked himself:
How much will the program cost?
What tools will be used?
How many weeks will it be?
What will be the dropout rate?
The constraints not only defined his path forward, but also allowed him to construct a structured story for his potential consumers. Here’s what it is, here’s who it’s for, and here’s why it’s valuable.
Sure, without the constraints, Godin could’ve retained that oft-prized optionality! and taken the program in any direction. But a project that can go in any direction is overwhelming to guide forward. And a project that can be anything is not particularly interesting because it's not clear to customers whether it's valuable to them or not.
That’s why constraints are so useful. They help avoid Seneca’s classic warning:
“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
You can look around at many successful businesses and you will see constraints that define the products or services.
Would Twitter’s concept have worked without a character limit?
Constraints and Art
Constraints can also benefit those who make their living creating art and other fascinating ideas or concepts. It may be a little unintuitive, but setting constraints can force an artist to explore a new creative space she normally would not freely choose.
This is what happened to the band R.E.M., which achieved its greatest commercial success right after applying two crucial constraints.
First, the band decided to make a tough choice and take an extended break from touring to avoid burnout. You make your living on the road, but it’s hell, and they felt it was time to get some space and distance from the grind.
Second, they then agreed that the band members should all switch instruments for their next album. The guitarist switched to the mandolin, the drummer moved to the bass, the bassist sat at the organ, and the singer started writing love songs.
Their next album Out of Time would go on to sell over 18 million copies worldwide and would host their most popular single, “Losing My Religion.”
Why did this work for R.E.M.? Because the new constraints forced them out of their comfort zone and encouraged them to dive deeper into a sound space they normally would not have explored on their own.
If coming up with interesting, creative ideas were easy, everyone would do it. Constraints can demand you to take the road less traveled. They can force you to adjust to limitations in a novel way, to truly act out Nassim Taleb's idea:
“Difficulty is what wakes up the genius.”
Sometimes when you really want to have a good idea, you get so overwhelmed with the possible candidates that the whole endeavor starts to feel hopeless. But setting some new constraints can force you out of that creative rut.
Here are some ideas:
Force yourself to make your article a certain number of words
Force yourself to just use two colors in a painting
Force yourself to create a new product out of only certain materials (hint: that's what Method soap did)
Force yourself to come up with 15 new ideas in 15 minutes
Freedom Through Commitment
The next time you find yourself staring at the blank page or the unmolded wad of clay or the empty training log, it may be time to think about how you can leverage constraints to define your path forward.
You may be tempted to keep your options open, but that can leave you scattered and unfocused.
A constraint causes you to make a commitment, and a commitment down one path is more useful than no commitment at all.
“We are happy in proportion as our range of vision, our sphere of work, our points of contact within the world, are restricted and circumscribed. We are more likely to feel worried and anxious if these limits are wide; for it means that our cares, desires and terrors are increased and intensified.”
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