Is having no limits really a good thing?
We often find ourselves wishing that the limitations in our lives were gone. We yearn for a mythical time when we can do whatever we want however we want for as long as we want.
Two things about this though: 1) It’s never going to happen; and 2) we are all better off with limits than without them.
In fact, those limits we love to hate may be what cause us to do more, achieve more, and become more. Today we’ll explore this idea of setting limits, and look at 15 ways we and our teams can be more by allowing ourselves…less.
From Dumpsters to the Moon
A while back, Twitter changed it’s message limit from 140 to 280 characters. In reaction, lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame tweeted that “Ya don’t add syllables to the haiku, or limerick, or sestina. The fun is what you can do within the form.”
He was talking about the challenge of finding ways to operate within limits.
Another writer, Mark Twain, famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Unlimited by the space he could take up, he was apologizing for the sloppy writing that would likely result.
Without the boundaries, both Miranda and Twain acknowledge that the probable outcome was going to be less than it could be. But it’s not just writers who see value in artificially imposed limits.
Famously successful basketball Coach John Wooden also used limits – not of syllables or words but time. In The Essential Wooden: A lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership, he talks about confining his team practices to exactly two hours a day. In forcing himself to work strictly within those limits he found ways to squeeze more value out of the time he had.
Monet limited his subjects, repeatedly painting the same thing over and over again, forcing himself to see them in new ways, ultimately helping spark the impressionist movement.
Professor Jeff Wilson used space as his limiter. For 276 nights he chose to live in a 33 square foot steel dumpster. He found that the struggle to fit everything he wanted into that tiny space helped him reimagine the concept of housing and ultimately launch a company.
On a much grander scale, President Kennedy used the limit of time to propel us to the moon. We’d probably have gotten there eventually, but by setting the limit to the end of the decade he activated the countdown timer and accelerated the process.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”
Research shows that when we find ourselves short on resources, we become much more creative about how we look at and use the ones we have – we have to be.
There are plenty more examples, and I’m not sure I can improve on Kennedy’s remarks, so let’s get to the practical application of this idea. How can we limit ourselves in ways that will bring our our best?
- Cut 15 minutes from the meeting; start and end exactly on time
- Use the pomodoro technique – give yourself only 25 minutes to get the next task done
- Pick a task and find a way to do it 10 minutes or 10% faster than last time
- Set clear goals with firm completion dates; then move the date closer than seems reasonable
- Block time for distractions like email; limit the time you spend on it to twice a day
- Don’t Google it; force yourself to come up your own original ideas
- Use Grandma’s Rule – don’t do the thing you want to do until you’ve done the thing you have to
- Reduce “screen time” – TV/computer/phone by one hour a day
- Go to bed an hour earlier, and wake up an hour earlier
- Reduce the space something takes up by half
- Set a lower limit on ideas – come up with at least 25 before picking the best
- Re-evaluate a process to save 20% of the needed resources
- Rewrite the paper and say the same thing with half the words
- Start with half the budget and find a way to accomplish the same things
- Say “no” to the next new project until a current one is finished
Setting Limits – The Takeaway
The limitations we dislike so much may be the very things that are helping us do more. So if we don’t find ourselves limited enough already, there are plenty of ways to add a little pressure.
And it can be helpful to see that pressure as a good thing. As Nathaniel Hawthorn once said:
If our goal is to move onward, then we have to see absolute freedom as a trap, and understand that we are at our best when we come up against barriers that force us to dig deeper.
If things already feel limited enough, it may be best to embrace the suck, see it as an opportunity, and find a way to make the most of what we have.
And if we seem to be drifting, maybe it doesn’t suck enough yet. These ideas can help with that.
My son has employed a version of this approach for his own purposes (and perhaps to justify some of that procrastination he inherited from me). I don’t prescribe this particular method, but it does have a ring of truth to it:
“If you wait to the last minute, it only takes a minute.”
Photo Credit: Alexander Fradellafra from Pixabay