For years, the dominant belief has been that limitations make us less creative, productive, and happy. And anyone who’s worked for an overbearing boss, been subject to a restricting bureaucracy, or tried to run a project without enough resources will probably agree.
But limitations get a bad rap.
Sure, we might think we want more time, bigger budgets, and more responsibility. But limitations are what make us buckle down and get things done. When used in the right way, limitations can empower us to think differently, stay focused, and actually be more productive and creative.
Let’s take a look at how entrepreneurs, artists, and leaders all use limitations to their advantage.
It’s the night before a big assignment or project is due. And even though you’ve had a month to work on it, there’s somehow still 80% left to do before tomorrow morning.
The “law” says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Meaning that if you give something 5 minutes to do, it’ll take 5 minutes.
While the law was meant to poke fun at the ways bureaucracies tend to grow (even when there’s no more real work to be done), it’s also a reminder that “more” doesn’t always equal “better”.
Or, as prolific author Issac Asimov phrased it:
“In ten hours a day you have time to fall twice as far behind your commitments as in five hours a day.”
When we think we have “all the time in the world” for a project, how often do we proactively work on it?
It’s limitations, not unlimited resources that help us stay focused. Limitations act as guardrails for our motivation, reminding us we have a destination we need to reach, and ensuring we don’t get too far off the path that will take us there.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”
“I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
Limitations can make you more productive, hit the finish line more often, and save your focus from slipping. Now, let’s dig into the specific situations where you can set limitations on yourself.
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When you set limitations on how and what you work on, you save yourself from falling victim to the dreaded “I can do it all…” syndrome. You know, when despite your best interests you say yes to everything and everyone.
But this is a mistake. As author Scott Sonenshein writes in Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less, research shows that our work problems, challenges, and opportunities become more manageable with constraints in place.
By setting limitations and knowing what work you will and won’t do, you protect yourself from making poor choices around work.
For writer and Exist founder Belle B. Cooper, this meant being knowing specifically what she was willing to do for clients, and what she wasn’t:
“Knowing in advance what you’re comfortable with makes those situations where you’re asked to do something different or beyond the original scope a lot easier to deal with. You don’t question yourself or entertain different possibilities.”
By limiting the work you do, you change the conversation from “I can’t do this job” to “I don’t do this kind of work”. Which is more than just a semantic difference.
Research has actually shown that actively saying “I don’t” is psychologically empowering and can help us stay motivated to reach our goals.
I’m as guilty as the next person for wanting to try out every new tool out there. But while new and exhaustive features can help in some scenarios, most of the time they’re just another layer of potential distractions.
Instead, limiting the tools you use to just what you need right now, means you’ll be less likely to get pulled off doing something extraneous.
As entrepreneur Jason Zook explains:
“When you have the right tool, it fades into the background and allows you to focus on the task at hand.”
If you’re a writer, look for word processors without formatting options like IA Writer or Text Edit. Or, see if the apps you use the most have some form of “distraction free” mode.
Limitations and creativity might sound like they don’t go hand-in-hand. But constraints are actually one of the best tools you can use to help with creative work.
Rather than be faced with the unlimited potential of a blank page, limitations help you get started. Think of them as a mental template. A starting place that puts you in a comfortable space to create.
As research has found, when people face scarcity in resources “they give themselves freedom to use resources in less conventional ways–because they have to.”
“The situation demands a mental license that would otherwise remain untapped.”
This “mental license” usually translates to creative thought. How do you do a task when you don’t have the tools or resources you’re used to having?
This is called “little c” creativity—where you’re not necessarily focused on creating new, original works, but on solving practical problems through new uses and applications of resources.
In fact, when researchers examined how people design new products, having a lower budget significantly increased how resourceful people were in responding to these challenges, leading to better results.
Of course, we all know we should set limitations on entertainment if we want to be more productive. But what about all the other “good” forms of content we consume every day?
There’s a sense that we need to “know it all” and that these good distractions are OK because we’re using them to learn and grow.
However, they’re also one of the easiest ways to get distracted and lose focus on what’s truly important. Especially when it comes to news, it can be exhausting and overwhelming to deal with and vet so much information.
Setting limitations on when, how, and where you get your news is one quick fix.
That could mean skipping online news and sticking to a printed newspaper. Or selecting a few resources that you trust and checking them at specific times during the day. Whatever you choose, the idea is to limit your sources and protect yourself from “drinking from the firehose” of news overload.
Before you say “I can’t do this until/unless…” remember that working with what you have now can be a powerful tool.
Limitations force us to think differently, stay true to our beliefs, and keep our focus in check. And as a bonus, acknowledging and accepting your limitations can help you battle procrastination and build momentum in your work.