Embracing constraint

A friend recently told me about his vacation where he felt surprisingly productive despite not having access to his normal resources (he only had a carry-on bag of clothes, a laptop and a couple books). Because he had fewer choices about what to do, he just picked a task available to him and started working on it.

In a similar vein, I read harder books when I’m on vacation. If I’m on a plane flight, my only choice is to read the book I have, so I will read it and enjoy it even though it’s difficult. When I’m at home, I’ll start it, but then I’ll check my email, watch some TV, or re-read a favorite sci-fi novel, and then it’s time for sleep.

It’s the inverse of the paradox of choice, which is when you become paralyzed by having to choose from among too many choices. When you have no choices, you can just get started.

It reminds me of a story from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig was teaching composition in a college in Bozeman, Montana, and gave his students a 5,000 word assignment. One student came to him at the deadline and told him that she was unable to complete the assignment because she couldn’t think of anything to write about her chosen topic, the United States. He told her the U.S. was too big a topic for this composition, and to try again, with the topic of Bozeman. She remained stuck. He suggested the city hall of Bozeman. She remained stuck. Finally, in exasperation, he told her to write about the front of the city hall, starting with the top left brick. When she was constrained to that extent, she was forced to start writing, and ended up with a 50,000 word essay.

Sometimes it’s better to give ourselves constraints, to give ourselves less choice. It goes against our instincts – Stumbling on Happiness cites studies showing that we tend to choose options that give us more choices in the future. But the book also demonstrates that having those choices doesn’t make us happier. Sometimes the right thing to do is to embrace a lack of choice.

We’ve all done it. When you needed to study for a big test in college, you didn’t try to do it in your dorm room – you went to the library where there were fewer distractions. Writers don’t sit at home all day – they go to cafes where they’re alone with their manuscript (or laptops these days).

Giving yourself less options puts you in position to succeed. One of my beliefs about management is that good managers put their employees in roles where they are more likely to be successful. What I’m saying here is that we need to manage ourselves in the same way, and maximize our chances of success.

When I have a hard book to read, I need to head to the library or the park or a cafe where I won’t get distracted by easier pursuits. When I need to get a paper done, I need to turn off the Internet connection. When I plan to exercise, I need to prepare by getting all of my gear in one place so it’s easy for me to get myself out the door before I lose my momentum. Twyla Tharp’s “rituals of preparation” are the same idea – get oneself in a place, both physically and mentally, where you can do the task.

It’s similar to my idea about an attention management system. To-do lists can be overwhelming because there are so many things on there that we feel like we can’t make a dent so we never do anything. One of the key ideas was that the to-do list would only gave you one task at a time. No choices. Choice introduces uncertainty and the cognitive overhead of trying to make a good choice.

I need to remember this idea. Pick one thing, forget about my other options, then put myself in an environment where I can only do that one thing so I’m not tempted by the other options. Get away from my pathological need to increase my options and start choosing some of those options and getting things done. Something to think about.

7 thoughts on “Embracing constraint

  1. It’s harder to write in a set poetic form than it is to write free verse, but it’s also weirdly liberating.

  2. I gained a whole new respect for the meter used in Byron’s poetry when I found out that he was bipolar and the only thing that he could do that could actually contain and focus his mind when he was on a racing manic igh was to write poetry in strict meter…

    If you think you are bad about focus without constraints, Eric… I am about 100 times worse 🙂

  3. I like this idea of contraints as useful; I also find procrastination oddly useful — when I am avoiding task #1 through #50, I often get loads of other things done. . . . But the constraints thing is key; for me part of constrainign is to put timelimits on things. Otherwise. .. . .

  4. I stumbled across your blog recently while doing some research about Steve Reich for some program notes. I just wanted to let you know that I have really enjoyed reading it every since. It is intelligent and very engaging.
    Thanks from Montréal!

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