The Focusing Power of Constraints

When we work within constraints, great things can happen.

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Like many new working mothers, in the early months after having my first child, I wondered how in the world I was going to be as good at my job as I had been. I knew many of the hours I once spent working were now devoted to caring for a child and worried that I would be unable to give to my work the attention that I had. What I have come to realize and appreciate is the demands of motherhood are a gift. Not only, a gift, for the joys of a baby, but because it constrains my time and forces me to prioritize, which ultimately makes me more efficient and productive.

On reflection, I should not have been surprised. It reminded me of my college days. As a three-season athlete (cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track) there was only a single week during each semester that I was not in season, training and competing. Each semester, I’d look forward to that week, figuring that it would be the time that I would get everything done and all caught up when my days were not eaten up with practice. And each semester, that week always turned out to be the one when I would get absolutely nothing done. 

We so often see constraints as a negative but in so many cases, they can be a positive. And the reverse is also true — the lack of constraints can make us horribly inefficient, as we manage to fill up the time we’re given with whatever is on our to-do list.

The arguments in favor of a four-day work week are similar: whatever time we are given, our work will expand to fill that time. Companies that have successfully transitioned to a four-day work week without losing output and productivity cite that employees are willing to work harder and ruthlessly prioritize when given a good reason: an extra day off a week. I, too, am willing to prioritize for my own good reason: focused time with my two young daughters. 

A great example of the positive potential of constraints is Green Eggs and Ham. Dr. Seuss limited himself to using only 50 words to complete the classic – the result of a bet with his publisher Bennett Cerf. When we work within constraints, great things can happen. As the saying goes, “if you need something done, ask a busy person to do it.”

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