Get More Done By Limiting Yourself

Restricted by Martin Cathrae

Sometimes restrictions can help more than they hinder.

People don’t usually like to have themselves limited. We like to be free, to have lots of options, for there to be no constraints on what we can do. The motivating factor behind a lot of people’s decision to chase financial independence through entrepreneurship or self-employment is specifically to have more control over their schedules, choices, and life. Constraints are bad.

Or are they?

Like so many things limits and restrictions don’t have to be bad thing if you can find a way to use them to your advantage. When you do they can act as a powerful motivational tool, creativity booster, and more.

When Choice Is the Enemy

It’s easy to romanticize complete and total freedom as an unambiguously positive thing, but in reality a lot of problems can stem from having too much freedom.

The first is something that people often call the Paradox of Choice. The short explanation of the paradox of choice is that in stead of having access to more options or choices being freeing or empowering, it actually makes it more difficult to just pick something and causes more anxiety and negative reactions than if there were fewer options from which to choose.

As a very basic example, imagine a restaurant menu that has fifteen dishes on it that you know you’ll really like. Having that many options makes it that much harder to just pick one than it would be if there were only a handful of things you knew you liked or fewer.

This also ties into the related problem of Paralysis by Analysis. Essentially that’s when you spend so much time deliberating over what would be the best choice or the most optimal course of action that you wind up not making a decision at all or continually putting it off. Using our menu example this might be wrestling over getting something new that you might wind up disliking, or going with a tried-and-true favorite that you know you’ll like but then missing out on trying something new – only to have completely failed to choose what to eat by the time the server comes back for your order.

On top of these problems, having a lot of options leads to decision fatigue. This is where each little choice you have to make slowly erodes your resolve and your willpower as the day goes on until there’s nothing left. In that state of depleted willpower at the end of the day it’s exponentially more difficult to be disciplined and stick to your diet or whatever other positive habits you’ve tried to build for yourself and on top of that it primes you to make poor decisions over good ones.

Using Limits As a Tool

To counteract these negative effects of having too much choice, the best thing to do is put yourself back in a situation where the presence of all these options isn’t so overwhelming that it’s going to stop you from getting to work.

By placing your own carefully selected limits and restrictions on yourself you can eliminate the problems caused by the paradox of choice and also make sure you’re engaging in behaviors that will help you be more productive and avoid things like procrastination and burn out.

  • If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed on a daily basis by all the things you have to get done then write out a short list every evening of the most important things you need to do the next day. Make it a relatively small list – we’re trying to work within limits here remember – no more than maybe six things. Then out of that short list choose the single most important thing that needs to get done and commit to doing that thing first thing in the morning and nothing else until it’s completed. This restriction will fore you to work through the important stuff in your day and not get distracted by every little thing you need to do.

  • Use time limits on your habits in order to make them stick better. We’ve talked in previous articles about habit building and timeboxing on how starting small and having a set time constraint can make a big difference in adherence and reduce the pressure to avoid the task or habit. If you want to exercise limit yourself by saying the only exercise you need to do is get your gym clothes on and walk out the door. Or maybe drive to the gym. Nothing else. Chances are once you get started you’ll keep going and actually work out, but if not it’s fine. The important thing is it’s hard to convince yourself you’re not capable of putting shoes on and walking out the door. Limit yourself to two minutes of language learning, or to a single Memrise session. You’ll find it easier to keep making progress once you’re started.

  • You can also use limits to force creativity. It’s an extremely common practice for writers to place some kind of crazy restriction on themselves to spark creativity, whether it’s just in a practice creative writing session or in an actual work. Some incredibly creative work has come up because people limit themselves to 500 words, or 140 in the case of Twitter. Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs & Ham limiting himself to only using fifty words. Some of the most impressive parkour runs I’ve seen have been from people at our gym limiting themselves to only using two rails, or not touching the same obstacle twice. Limits can be a strong force for squeezing out creativity you didn’t know you had.

Limits can be a frustration, or they can be an asset. It all depends on how you approach them and how you make use of them.

Are there any other ways you can think to apply your own restrictions to yourself to be more productive instead of having them be a negative thing? Leave a comment and share with everyone!

Photo Credit: Martin Cathrae

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com