Using Strategic Constraints To Make Progress

strategic constraints

I had four months until I was broke. I sat up straight, removed my glasses to rub my eyes, and stared at the wall ahead. There was nothing left to determine from the Excel spreadsheet on my computer.

I was evaluating my finances to determine if I could quit my job.

I wanted to focus on finishing my book, but needed more hours in each day. I realized the week prior that there was too much to do, I wasn’t going to be able to finish the book by my self-imposed deadline unless something changed. I couldn’t work, coach, and finish the book. Coaching was temporary and I justified it by telling myself that it helped inspire me to write. Work had been a means to pay the bills while I focused on the writing. If I had enough to get through publishing, which should take about three more months, I could walk away.

I replaced my spectacles and began planning my denouement at work with impatience. I had no choice but to publish on time.

Financial Strategic Constraints

This was the first time I’d consciously imposed a strategic constraint on my life. Upon reflection, it was exactly what I needed. During the moment, however, I was terrified.

With no income for four of the most expensive months of the year (fall/winter), many people considered my decision ill-advised. I saw it as an opportunity to finish a dream. Think about how many people say they “aspire to write a book” or “haven’t finished writing their book.” I didn’t want to be them. This drastic move was what allowed me to be the person who has written and published a book.

creating strategic constraintsI’m a voracious consumer of content and I used to listen to hours of podcasts each week. Many of them were in the entrepreneurial category and, thanks to Pat Flynn, I found this recurring theme of people who became suddenly motivated by a drastic life change: loss of a job, birth of a child, urgent family issues, etc. I realized that each of the people had been painted into a corner only to find the window. Necessity spurred the best in people. Cutting off my financial spigot was my way of painting myself into a corner. The decision would force me to focus and get the job done, because I’d have no other choice.

My constraint came out of necessity.

I didn’t see any other way around quitting my job. I’m sure there were other options, but I was blind to them. In my mind, this was perfect. I would quit, focus on my writing, publish the book, and become a best-selling author. Money wouldn’t matter soon anyway!

Kidding about that last part (kind of). I knew that I was going to quit regroup after the book was published anyway, so I might as well force myself into that situation now to heighten the urgency to finish. I had a deadline and I knew I needed more time in my day to meet it. But without taking something away, I couldn’t focus completely.

Constraint caused progress.

Other Strategic Constraints

That was months ago and I’d nearly forgotten, as we humans tend to, this important lesson. Then, just recently, I discovered someone who made me think critically about my situation.

An artist named Phil Hansen discovered ways to work exclusively with constraints after developing a tremor in his drawing hand. His TED talk titled “Embrace the Shake” helped refuel this idea that, once again, I needed to impose a constraint in my life.

Phil’s talk made me realize I had too many options available. I had just started my new job and I was stuck. It is my responsibility to find new healthcare organizations with whom to work. But since we weren’t assigned territories, I didn’t know where to start: analysis paralysis.

I found myself prospecting a hospital in Alabama, then jumping to another in Montana before lunch, and finally researching facilities in Virginia by the end of the day. I couldn’t focus with so many options.

I know when I’m not on track, I don’t need a supervisor to point that out. So I decided to make a change. To borrow Phil’s verbiage, I created a shake I could embrace: I would only work in certain states. I started in Alabama since my brother lives there. Because there were only so many prospects, I looked next door to Mississippi as well. Between the two of them, I found a decent set of prospects and made more progress in a few days than I had in a few months.

Once again, constraint caused progress.

Imposing Your Own Strategic Constraints

Not everyone has the luxury of a team to push them. Sometimes you need to paint yourself into a corner to find the window like I did. Like Phil Hansen had to. If you’re stuck, trying applying strategic constraints. If you have too many choices, take something away. And if your team can’t make decisions, limit the scope of the project or at least their options. Narrow your focus to get started.

“Less but better” is a mantra I’ve focused on this year. Take away something in front of you to make progress on the larger goal down the road.

If you’ve used constraints to make progress, I’d love to hear about your experiences below or on Twitter.

Deliberately Sharpening Skills: 3 Ways To Find Sharks’ Teeth

deliberately sharpening skills

I am infatuated with practice. Deliberately sharpening skills is an idea I’m comfortable with from extensive time playing and coaching football. I have seen how consistently honing skills can bring about improvement and, eventually, mastery.

But not just idly practicing, or “going through the motions.” By challenging ones’ self with new exercises. By getting out of a comfortable place and into new territory. With intention.

In addition to my personal experiences, I have studied the work of individuals who have dedicated their lives to the science of improvement. I have drawn from a well of inspiration that includes, but is not limited to, Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman, Angela Duckworth’s Grit, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and next on my list are Anders Ericsson’s Peak and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. These thinkers have inspired me to concoct new ways to practice.

I now know more about intentional practice than ever in my life. But instead of applying these principles to sports, I now apply them to writing.

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Long Ball > Short Ball

Q: What do the Netflix, Uber, and heroin have in common?

The first two cases are generally accepted as good things. The third is not… unless you’re a junkie. Most new technology, products (which, for this example, includes heroin), and services are aimed at giving us low-friction, instant gratification solutions – the answer to my question. For example, Netflix allows you to stream your favorite show anytime, anywhere, on any device.

At first glance, life appears better because of instant gratification. We endure less boredom and enjoy more productivity. Less waiting, more doing. It’s like we’ve paid for a permanent fastpass to the skip the line and go straight to the ride, no standing around, ever. The world moves faster than it did 50, 20, or even five years ago. In most cases, that’s a good thing. Because many of us are used to getting what we want when we want it, the rest of this post may be hard for some to digest.

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How To Think Like A Thought Leader

Let’s break the term “thought leader” down into two parts before we discuss it: (1) thought – “an idea or opinion produced by thinking or occurring suddenly in the mind.” In order to have thoughts on a subject, you’d need to know about said subject. You’d need to study it or at least be familiar with it. (2) leader – “an organization or company that is the most advanced or successful in a particular area.” This part is relatively self-explanatory. I won’t elaborate on leadership since I already have here, here, and here.

Wikipedia defines a thought leader as:

thought lead·er – individual or firm that is recognized as an authority in a specialized field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.

So, said another way, a person who has unique thoughts on a particular subject due to their expertise AND whose opinion is looked to for guidance. Now that we have a clear understanding of the definition of a thought leader, we can proceed with how to think like one.

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When Change Is Counterproductive: The Exception vs. The Rule

Teaching “The Close”

Training sales people was one of the most rewarding parts of my job at the furniture company. Every six weeks (or so) I would receive a fresh batch of hires needing to learn how to sell furniture. If they didn’t sell, they didn’t earn a paycheck. Because of this unforgiving logic, I considered my time with them imperative.

Furniture University (FU for short) was often filled with people who had never sold anything for money. They had been on the job for a few days or, at best, a few weeks learning the processes and products. The ones who “got it” ate up the material. The ones fearful of rejection found an excuse for everything I taught.

The process that I focused on was one of specific dialogue. It was wrought with one-liners, questions, and strategy (I can’t take credit for the sales process, that came from my teacher/employer/mentor; the real salesman). The coup de grâce of this sales process was the closing question:

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Using Pattern Recognition To Improve Customer Service

Using Pattern Recognition To Improve Customer Service

My trip to CLT from JAX started off typical: cramped, hot, and teetering on the brink of late. We boarded on time, but the plane was small. Everyone had seats, but there wasn’t ample space for luggage. No worries; I had a window seat and we’d be taking off shortly.

The baggage, and people, found appropriate homes and we braced to push back. After all, that’s what happens when the door shuts and everyone is buckled up. Except, we didn’t.

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Perfecting Your Craft When You’re Not Practicing Your Craft

perfecting your craft when you're not practicing your craft

I did it as an experiment. My schedule would soon change and I would have less time to focus on the things I wanted to work on. My attention would be drawn in many new directions, none of which faced my writing.

Writing had become my craft. Some people play music, some paint, and I wrote. Though my schedule was changing, I still wanted to continue honing the craft I’d come to love.

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Success In Spite Of Failure

People contact me regularly to guest post on the blog. Most of the time, this attempts are weak and irrelevant to what I share on the blog. However, this one stuck out.

I discuss chasing your dreams, failure, and perseverance regularly. This infographic speaks directly to these topics and is a great reminder that no matter what failures you think you’ve gone through, you’re not alone. Remember, success is closer than you realize.

Please enjoy this piece from Essay Tigers:

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