Product/Service Designers are typically given a brief, which is the starting point of any project. The brief gives the project a framework, benchmarks by which to measure progress, and objectives to be met. It is neither too abstract nor too narrow in its focus, but an ideal mix of freedom and constraint. The brief identifies the appropriate constraints in a project because design cannot happen without constraints. In fact, the best designs are carried out within quite severe constraints.

The point is that if design cannot happen without constraints in a project, how can we design our lives without having any constraints? Are we doing justice to ourselves, to our potential, and to our lives by not having any constraints? Probably not.

Before we discuss using the power of constraints in our personal lives so we can be maximally effective, let’s debunk a huge misconception about it first.

Constraints are mostly thought of as limitations or restrictions, but in actuality, they are quite liberating. Having constraints fuels creativity and resourcefulness — it doesn’t undermine it. They set us free so we have the space to be limitless within those boundaries.

Having boundaries and constraints are conducive to effectiveness and creativity. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t serve as a barrier to our work, but actually set us up for improved performance. They are not barriers to our ability to innovate, but a wonderful opportunity to bring about positive change. When we have fewer resources to work with, we give ourselves the freedom to use resources creatively in more unconventional ways because we have no other choice.

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer has said:

Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome. Creativity thrives best when constrained.

When I know that I only have so much time every morning to do creative work, I can’t afford to miss it. If I do, the time to do this work is gone for the day. That would be a waste. I do this work in the morning because it is then that I have the most energy. I covered this at length in my piece on getting work done.

This is also a great example of using the process (showing up to do creative work) to determine the outcome (produce articles). You can read about that in Process and Outcome. In this case, doing creative work in the morning acts as a wonderful (time) constraint. Besides, doing this work every day enables me to build buffer, especially for days when I may not be able to do the work because of travel or other reasons. This is just one example of how I use constraints in my life.

Here are some more examples of constraints. Every color in nature comes from three basic colors: red, yellow, and blue. The combination of these basic colors produces millions of different colors. There are 26 letters in the English language, which can form an infinite number of words and ideas. There are 10 foundational numbers (from 0 to 9). Music composed in the chromatic scale is limited to 12 different pitches, but can be used to create unique pieces of art. Humans are made of 118 known chemical elements.

I hope you’re starting to see the value of having constraints. They are often advantages in disguise, and they force our brain to be more creative (not less). They enable you to focus on things that matter most.

There is an important point Mayer made in her article:

Creativity loves constraints, but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible.

The “healthy disregard for the impossible” that she is talking about here is about practicing divergent thinking. Constraints work well when balanced with practicing divergent thinking.

Here are some ideas for employing constraints to improve our personal effectiveness:

Block out time in your calendar for things that you do every day such as Eat, Move, Sleep. Doing this gives you a realistic view for how much time you have available to do the things you want to do. In other words, these things act as constraints so you can plan to do your work and leisure around them.

Plan your weeks so you have enough time for your relationships and results. Schedule things that are important to you. That’s the only way you’re going to get them done as nothing happens unless you plan time for it.

Give yourself no more than 5 hours (let’s say) to work every day. That’s it. Five hours. Say to yourself, “I’m allowed to work no more than 5 hours a day, 25 hours a week”, then evaluate the results you get from that strategy at the end of the week. This strategy is particularly useful for those who tend to procrastinate.

Keeping (and sticking to) a personal/organizational budget is a great example of financial constraint. Product designers have to routinely design products (such as cars) that must fit within the size of a driving lane (in the case of cars), which could be thought of as a physical constraint. Having deadlines at work is an example of a time constraint. Giving yourself the space to do things is an example of a mental constraint.

When you’re given a project at work, ask for constraints (timeline, budget, etc.). When there are no constraints, create your own. Having them will help you plan (and deliver) the project in a timely manner.

Here’s the thing: There will never be enough time, money, or people to do the things we want, and that’s a good thing. We perform great work within constraints, but not without them. Embrace constraints and learn to use them to your advantage. They can help us be more creative and productive, and they can give us the freedom and the flexibility to be limitless within their confines.

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