English novelist Mary Shelley spent the summer of 1816 at Villa Diodati in Cape Geneva. Thanks to an unexpectedly wet and stormy summer, Shelley was trapped indoors. She had almost nothing to do but sit around the fireplace, read ghost stories and write.
This admittedly unplanned constraint encouraged Shelley, who was then only 19, to think more creatively and led to one of the most famous books of the nineteenth century. You might not care for creating Frankenstein, but you can still use constraints to become more productive and effective.
Giving your team a deadline is an effective way of imposing this constraint. If you’re worried about letting people down, use an internal deadline for your team and an external one for customers. Elon Musk took this approach after he was criticized for missing deadlines at Tesla and SpaceX.
Alternatively, if you’re a solopreneur, assign set work hours for focusing on a particular project. For example, you could constrain yourself to creative work every morning between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.
In the book Profit First, author Mike Michalowicz explains how to use constraints to manage company expenses. He recommends setting up separate bank accounts for each expense category: salaries, advertising, taxes and so on. Each bank account acts as a constraint that prevents a business from using up its operating expenses on a single project.
Michalowicz told me, “With less money, I say, ‘How do I get the same results I’ve always had, if not better, with less money?’ And I start thinking outside the box.”
Jeff Bezos famously said a team is unproductive if two large pizzas isn’t enough to feed everyone in attendance. Applying Bezos’s approach, you might reduce the number of employees at your next meeting or simply decide only three team members should work on a particular project. Or your company might decide to include some short-term contractors rather than hiring more employees and growing too fast.
Today’s best productivity apps enable us to collaborate with others in ways that Mary Shelly couldn’t imagine. However, reliance on too many tools is often distracting. Instead, reducing your dependence on tools means fewer things can go wrong because of technical errors. You’ll spend less on subscriptions, and your team won’t have to worry about learning a lot of new tools at once.
Considering all the online courses, books and tutorials available today feels overwhelming. Instead, try just-in-time learning, whereby you study a particular skill from your discipline when you need it. In other words, don’t study Pinterest marketing until your business is ready for that social media channel. It’s relatively easy to apply this constraint too, as the bulk of what you need to know is readily accessible in online tutorials, books or courses.
Mary Shelley stayed indoors for a cold summer and produced Frankenstein. She said, “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”
The right constraint will free you up to create from chaos rather than worrying about inconsequential problems. So next time you face a challenge at work, consider what you can remove, and the results might pleasantly surprise you.