The Power of Positive Constraints

Knowing when to dial back and how to do it

One of my worst habits is my ability to perpetually bite off more than I can chew.

I have periods of dormancy, where I’m anxious that I don’t have enough work on my plate, and then, feeling this anxiety, I go out and create work for myself.

Before I know it, I’m lost in a neverending to-do list and there’s suddenly never enough hours in the day.

When I ran my startup BrainGain it was a similar story. I was never satisfied with what we had. I always wanted more companies to recruit for, more resumes in the pipeline.

So what did I do? I lined up more companies than we could handle. I lined up job descriptions we could never fill. I never learned how to say no, and in doing so I bit off more than I could chew.

At one point we had over 100 Job Descriptions and I knew that I could only fill about 5-10 of them if I was lucky.

I was only fooling myself with gaudy numbers. I was chasing new customers instead of focusing on the ones I already had.

I made a decision to stop the foolishness. I decided to put a cap on the number of companies that we would work with. I decided that we would email the companies we couldn’t handle, and tell them that we have to put them on backlist for now.

And we did it. I emailed our customers and told them that we didn’t have the bandwidth to recruit for them anymore. I put them on a waiting list.

Then we began to focus on the companies we COULD make placements for. And we did.

We doubled down on the companies we knew we could make placemats with, and we closed out the year strong with an additional 20 placements.

The lesson here? Use positive constraints – intentional limits to prevent yourself from biting off more than you can chew.

Positive constraints are the warning sign that a turn is up ahead and you need to slow down. Checkpoints to help you from veering off the path in your journey.

Positive constraints are like when you go can swimming in the ocean, but not past that line with the buoy. The constraints are meant to protect you from getting hurt. You can still swim in the ocean – just not past that line.

It’s the same in life. Indulge in activities, but know when to stop. Know when you start to lose control. Know what your limits are. 

My dad always says “Cows eat well, pigs get slaughtered.”

You get the message – don’t be greedy…in all areas of life. Cultivate the discipline to say “I have enough” and stop searching for more.

How many customers is too many customers? How many employees is too many? How many products is too many?

Positive constraints help us to keep ourselves in check. To prevent ourselves from falling out of line. In business and in life. 

They help you to know the most important places to spend your time and energy. You prioritize the most important activities, and let the others fall by the wayside.

Positive constraints also help you to have the space for when a real opportunity arises. If you’re constantly saying YES to everything, when a true opportunity comes along you might not have the bandwidth to pursue it. Your plate is already full.

On the other hand, if you have built SPACE into your life and business, when a good opportunity arises that is worth your time, you know that you will have the energy and time to pursue it.  It won’t throw off your equilibrium because you prepared for it already.

Positive constraints help you to build that space into your life. The “flex room” so that if/when the opportunity you have been looking for comes along, you have the bandwidth to pursue it.”

It’s like Jocko Wilinck says, “discipline = freedom”. By giving yourself discipline (constraints) in certain areas of your life you create the freedom (space) to spend time as you please.

You can use positive constraints in literally every area of your life. Prevent yourself from working too much. Or working out too much. Or trying to grow too fast.

Set limits for yourself in the areas where you have a hard time controlling yourself. Especially in the areas where you get excited and enthusiastic quickly, as this enthusiasm and excitement can impair your ability to make a good decision for yourself.

But yes, I will admit that these are for people who usually go overboard. If you have to set positive constraints for yourself you probably don’t have a problem in the willpower and initiative category (well, maybe willpower in the context of learning how to say no).

Implementing positive constraints in business and life has helped me to maintain and cultivate a system of checks and balances for myself. It has helped me to build better relationship with myself, prevent burnout, and spend my time and energy in the right places.

Most importantly, it’s helped me to understand my limits and know when to say enough is enough.


Also published on Medium.

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