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A while back I was listening to episode 85 of The Life Coach School Podcast, titled Constraint. It’s the first episode that I got the transcript to read through and highlight because it’s that good.
I originally sent this content to my email subscribers in July 2019 over the course of 5 weeks. I also did a Facebook live about Constraint, which you can watch here.
This post is about constraint, how I interpret it, and how you can incorporate constraint into your daily life to help fix problems and generally improve things.
Some people work well when they face limitations. Others prefer to “have their options open”, but more often than not, that results in delayed decision-making and dissatisfaction with the result.
- Go to a buffet, eat one of everything, and you feel sick later.
- Buy a shirt from a selection of twenty shirts and you go home wondering if you made the right choice.
- Apply to 20 colleges and you put off accepting any of them because what if one of the others is better?
Limiting your choices results in better decisions. Companies that offer a broad range of 401K options have a lower participation rate than companies that only offer a few selections to choose from. Too many choices makes us freeze up.
Examples of Constraint
At the time of the podcast recording in 2015, Brooke Castillo, the host of the podcast, only shopped at one place for her clothing, shoes, and accessories, a boutique chain called White House Black Market. I’m not caught up to her 2019 episodes yet, so I can’t say for certain that she still only shops at one clothing store.
I constrain my food choices to low-carb. Eating things with carbs is just not an option for me. It simplifies every meal because I already know what I can and can’t have. It’s already a given.
A more extreme example: I only applied to one college… Because I had guaranteed acceptance, thanks to my GPA. I wasn’t attached to going to any other schools and I had friends already attending there, so it made sense to avoid applying to more than the one.
You Constrain Things Unconsciously
We all constrain things in our lives whether we realize it or not.
For me and many others, touching cigarettes is just not an option. Neither is doing drugs or drinking to excess. I don’t pick fights with strangers or participate in those internet challenges that make people look stupid on video.
These are personal rules that align with our values, and we already have them—some, more than others.
Personal Rules of Constraint
In that same podcast episode, Brooke talked about some of her personal rules, like shopping at one store for all her clothes, not letting her boys sit down at the dinner table without a shirt on, and her decision to cut alcohol out of her life. Rules like these take the “chatter” out of decision-making.
When you don’t give yourself the option to do something, your brain shuts up. If you decide to remove alcohol from your life, there’s no question about what you do when someone offers you a glass.
What Do You Want to Constrain?
Ask yourself what you spend a lot of time thinking about. What’s taken over your time? What do you think about more than once, that you really shouldn’t?
What are you frustrated with?
Those are the things to create your personal constraint rules around.
The idea isn’t to expand your options—it’s to cut away the things that don’t or won’t work. Constrain your focus to just one thing at a time.
Examples of Personal Rules
I’m someone who needs examples if I want an easier time coming up with my own. Here are more of Brooke’s rules, as well as some of mine.
Brooke’s Rules (Paraphrased)
- It has to be useful or we have to love it, or it doesn’t stay in the house.
- I decide ahead of time what I’m going to eat.
- We never lend money, period. We can give money with no strings attached, but we will never lend money.
- I take one class at a time. If I’m in the middle of a class, I can’t be buying another class.
The more that you constrain it, the less you have to decide on things. —Brooke Castillo
My Rules (A Short Selection)
- I only eat low-carb foods. Exceptions are only allowed to correct a low blood sugar.
- I do not jaywalk. As a Safety Champion, it’s my responsibility to exhibit safe behavior at all times.
- If I can’t honor a commitment to someone else, I tell them as soon as I know.
- In my marriage, divorce is not an option. At all. Ever. There’s just no question about it. Neither of us is abusive, and we address any issues together and/or with a therapist.
Craft Your Own Personal Rule
Think back to that area of frustration. What can you focus on—constrain—in order to make some progress on it?
Come up with a one-sentence personal rule that you can commit to honoring for at least 90 days.
Next, I want to discuss the magic of doing one thing at a time.
Have you heard that multitasking doesn’t actually exist? It’s really “task-switching”, which exacts a toll on the brain and our focus. Switching from one task to another cuts down on the effectiveness of doing one thing until completion, but we don’t recognize it.
We jump from email to Facebook to that project we’re working on to a discussion with a coworker and back to email, thinking that we’re getting a lot done. All we’re doing is staying busy.
And busy does not equal productive.
Doing One Thing at a Time
Brooke only takes one course (or class) at a time.
I’ll admit—when I heard her say that, my jaw kind of dropped. I’m a course junkie. I actually don’t know how many courses I’ve bought total, but the number is well over 300. And of those, I’ve completed maybe 20-30. Possibly not even that. I’m working on a way to track my courses, but that’s for another time.
The idea of doing one thing at a time is nothing new to me. I’ve eschewed the concept of multitasking for a long time, but never thought to apply it to things like taking courses.
Can you imagine the kind of impact that would make? Dedicating all your “course time” to just one course, absorbing and implementing every lesson, without the distraction of other courses?
The Ultimate Level of Focus
Constraining down to doing one thing at a time is where the magic happens. If you’re a business owner, focus on one product or service offering at a time. For a while, Brooke constrained down to only offering one-on-one coaching. She didn’t work on creating courses, in-person live events, webinars, or anything else. It just wasn’t a question.
In the corporate world, depending on your situation, it’s harder to focus on one project at a time. There are multiple priorities, deadlines, projects, and deliverables. But what if you could dedicate each day of the work week to focus on one of those things? Maybe on Monday you buckle down to work on Project A.
You can also think of it as Deep Work or batching.
For those of you in the freelance or entrepreneurial world, the “do one thing at a time” comes down to your service offerings. Entrepreneurs who focus on one skill become masters of that skill and can charge more for it. Going deep instead of going wide is the ticket.
What’s Your One Thing?
While it would be nice if it coincided with your personal rule of constraint, it doesn’t have to. My one thing right now is what Brooke does—one course at a time. I’m enrolled in a bunch, but the one I’m working through right now, The Bestseller Blueprint, is in direct support of my goal to publish my book by November 1st. Any deviation to other courses is not allowed until I finish this one.
There’s a great book called The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller. In it he talks about the importance of choosing the next ONE thing that, by doing it, will make everything else easier or irrelevant.
So what are you going to go deep on? What’s your ONE thing?
What is Self-Negotiation?
Simply put, it’s arguing with yourself. It’s coming up against a decision or a choice and trying to convince yourself that “just this once” won’t hurt.
It’s when you go out with friends and debate with yourself about ordering a glass of wine.
Or when you get up early to go on a run, but then tell yourself it’s too dark or too cold or you’re too tired… So you don’t go.
Self-negotiation is the chatter in your brain that turns simple decisions into long, drawn-out agony. Should you? Shouldn’t you? Why not this time? Once won’t hurt. It’s okay.
The problem with giving in to self-negotiation is that it hurts future you.
Why Future You Matters More
Future you is the person you imagine will have it easier. Future you is stronger and more put-together, able to resist temptations and enjoys an uber-successful life that present you is really looking forward to.
Every action you take in the present affects how future you turns out. Every single one. Future you doesn’t have a chance at success unless present you sets yourself up for it.
Self-negotiation undermines constraint, and yet, if we avoid self-negotiation, constraint becomes much easier. And thus, our future selves benefit the most.
When we do things with our future selves in mind, it becomes easier to identify which behaviors, activities, decisions, and choices will negatively affect us in the future, even if it seems pleasant or good in the present.
The trick is to act in favor of future you when you recognize those actions.
Discipline to the Rescue!
When you make a commitment to someone, like an appointment or a date, you’re probably going to keep that commitment.
Doing the same for commitments with yourself takes discipline.
Brooke Castillo says this: “The more I honor my commitments to myself, the higher my self-esteem, [and] the better I feel about myself.”
I notice this in my own life. When I practice discipline and honor the promises I made to myself, I just feel better about things.
Even when my introverted nature is wishing for friends to cancel our plans, I always feel better when I show up and follow through. To me, it’s more important to stay true to my word than to give in to the temporary pleasure of self-negotiation.
Discipline is hard. It’s simple, but difficult. And the way to build that discipline (because it’s like a muscle) is to practice it daily.
Stick to your personal rule of constraint today. When your brain begins to chatter at you about your buffet of options, remind it that no, you’ve made a commitment that you’re keeping.
Now, then, what can you subtract from your life?
All of these concepts of constraint tie together. As a limitation or restriction, by nature constraint is subtracting something that over-complicates things.
Our personal rules of constraint all contain some element of subtraction.
- Not drinking except on special occasions is a subtraction of alcohol from my daily life.
- Only purchasing clothing at one store is a subtraction of shopping overwhelm from Brooke Castillo’s life.
- Only eating between certain hours is subtracting eating outside those hours. (This is called “intermittent fasting.”)
- Taking one class or course at a time is subtracting the “shiny object syndrome” of buying new courses that look like they could be interesting.
(I have a weakness for Joseph Michael’s writing courses. Seriously. I had to unsubscribe from his marketing emails.)
Subtraction is just another way of looking at constraint.
Where Are You Frustrated?
The simplest way to decide what to subtract is to pay attention to what’s frustrating you.
For example, I was off work for a combination of holiday and vacation for 12 calendar days (8 working days) at the beginning of July 2019, for Independence Day and Panther Camp. When I got back I was distracted and I started wasting time with games on my phone, despite having done a “digital detox” in June 2019. The distraction and apathy drove me to do something I knew was against my goals and desires.
It frustrated me to the point that I deleted most of the games, and now usually leave my phone in the car during the work day, completely turned off.
Subtracting the phone from the majority of my day (and subtracting the games) has improved my focus and productivity in all areas of my life.
What could you subtract from your life that would make your frustration disappear, or easier to deal with?
Once you’ve figured out what you’d like to subtract, subtract it for 90 days.
Don’t negotiate with yourself on this. If you’re cutting out alcohol, there’s just no question that you’ll have alcohol. If you’re cutting out junk food, there’s no question about buying or eating junk food.
Discipline is hard. Doing this for 90 days will not be easy, but it will be worth it.
This is the creation of a new personal rule of constraint.