Constraints – also known as restrictions or limitations – are in reality pretty useful and good. I believe that constraints enable us to structure our life, work, idea and thus, force us to think more clearly about something in particular. In addition, having constraints can set the tone for what truly needs to get done. Constraints can also be valuable in the creation of a sense of commitment. For example, having a time constraint to complete a task “forces” the work to get done. Thinking further about constraint, I can assume that for some people, including myself, constraints can help me to adapt my level of thinking and be more creative.

Let me give you an example of a simple constraint. If you’re brainstormed ideas for your next project, how would you get started? Introduce a constraint such as limiting yourself to a specific industry, particular topic or simply to set a time limit to generate numerous ideas. On the other hand, if I have to define a problem statement, I would usually constrain myself by setting a few criteria. These criteria actually help me to be more effective in my tasks and, depending on what is to be done – be more focus, driven by the key results and somehow, more audacious and creative.

Constraints, in my opinion, do not necessarily imply pushing someone to think out of the box, but rather build a new box (better, maybe?) using the information already available at hand. Introducing constraints is helpful for some people to obtain clarity as well as creating a structure for accountability, results, or clearing confusion.

In short, a constraint can be anything from a fixed time frame, finite set of tools/resources or a limited scope.

In the lean startup methodology, I have learnt to apply constraints to test & validate ideas, and work on iteration by reducing or increasing constraint(s), and thus be able to move quickly from one experiment to another. If you’re not familiar with lean startup, read this: Why the lean startup changes everything. Another explanation that I’ve heard of before is that a constraint or a set of constraints, will enable you to build your vision bit by bit, rather than all at once. It’s not about compromising your vision, but to be more selective in the approach, even more patient and certainly, focus.

To leverage on constraints is about being an explorer, unleashing the inquisitive person in you – leading to discoveries that, otherwise, would not have been made possible without setting up some restrictions. Yes, constraints could help the creation of unknown opportunities.

Harness the power of constraints?

This approach will be from a productivity hacking point of view, that can be readily applied to other areas of your life and work. Whether you are an entrepreneur brainstorming for product features or problem to solve, or a student thinking about how to get started on an assignment…constraints can come in handy. Above all, do acknowledge what are the existing constraints and what are the constraints that you are intentionally trying to harness on…

Here are 3 tips to get things rolling:

1. Time and Deadline
2. The 1% Marginal Gain
3. Think in Ratio

Let’s start with Time and Deadline

There’s the famous Pomodoro Technique. Set yourself a time limit to work on a task, and get it done within the time limit. If you can’t you can always take a break before resuming for another defined time limit. This approaching of having short period of time to focus on a task with frequent small breaks can improve your mental agility. I felt it did for me 🙂

A deadline works in a similar way. You’ve got to submit this damn assignment on the 12th of next month? And you’ve got only 4 weeks to go? That’s perfect. Set yourself a deadline every week and aim to hit the deadline with as many completed tasks as possible. That’s common sense? I use Google Calendar to set deadlines and Evernote for both reminders and my to-do checklist. That’s it about the constraint of time. There’s obviously other strategies. Please share with me (:

Next is The 1% Marginal Gain: This concept aims to seek a 1% improvement upon every iteration and it is considered as a process. Well – I do see it as a constraint of effort that could be implemented in someone’s regular activities in order to boost productivity. The other benefit is the cumulative gains that result from having a 1% improvement upon every iteration.

Here’s a graphic from James Clear who shared about the 1% process improvement

Marginal Gains Aggreggation
Aggregation of Marginal Gains

Set yourself a target and limit yourself to it. Next target, should be 1% higher and again, limit yourself to it.
This applies to every area of your life. Set yourself a limitation which is still higher than what you’re currently doing.

Want to lose 5 kg in 100 days? Here’s how I optimize my weight loss through the 1% marginal gains:
1. Day 1 of Day 100: Run 1 km. Day 2? I kept to 1km. But by Day 100, I was running about 2.7 km
2. Day 1 of Day 100: Running time: 10 min. And by Day 100, I was running under 3 min. (Although this represented more than 1% marginal gain over 100 days, you get the idea).
3. Day 1 of Day 100: Eating habits from breakfast to dinner. Started Day 1 with my usual approach and then slowly optimized my meals. (Fret now, I didn’t go to the point of calculating the amount of protein, carbohydrates intakes etc…although, you could!).
4. Day 1 of Day 100: Optimizing my sleep time – I defined a good sleep by the ratio of normal sleep to deep sleep of 2:1, so during one night sleep of 8 hours, approximate 4 hours of it will be the deep sleep mode.
5. Day 1 of Day 100: Changed my commuting habit: Walked instead of taking the bus. Varied my walking speed since the distance was always the same way. I tried to apply the 1% marginal gain here. But somewhat failed, I guess there’s a better method.

Last but not least, Think in Ratio:
Ratio thinking is what I applied to the 1% Marginal Gains. For example, I controlled my meals but not to the level of detail of calorie intake for example. I leveraged on ratio thinking, knowledge of the food portion that I would get for the price that I was paying and common sense.

Thinking in Ratio is arbitrary and this up to you. You can set a target limit of 100 emails sent per month for example, and hope to receive 50 replies for each email within 1 week. Or you want to achieve a 1000 words essay within the next 3 hours? Think in ratio. How many words do you need to reach per hour?

I’ve applied Think in Ratio in a few areas:
Cold Emailing: To get a reply, a very good number of emails must be sent.
Digital Marketing: To get the first 1000 visitors, a few channels must be explored (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin,…).

Within reasonability, you can set a success rate (i.e. your constraint) and work (hard) to optimize the success rate. Leverage on the 1% marginal gain to keep improving your chances of reaching your success rate after each attempt.

In the context of cold email: My success rate 40% of the emails are being replied to. I try to optimize by 1% every time through different subject title, opening lines, etc…And to go back to Think in Ratio, I aim for a large number of emails to be sent regardless of the optimization brought to the email subject line, opening lines, etc…

An illustration:
I set my success rate at 40% (meaning that 4 out of every 10 email will receive a reply).
The number of emails sent will usually be around 50 to 80, depending the purpose.

How do you use constraints / constraint-thinking to yield benefit(s)?

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