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.