Protecting Your Productive Freedom by Placing … Constraints? Yep.


Last week, I wrote about “flow systems” and the importance of removing obstructions to allow your day, your work and your life to flow more smoothly.

Today, however, I’m going to write about something that, at first, may seem contradictory: The importance of constraints.

So, last week I said to remove obstructions … and this week I’m advising you to place constraints?  You bet.

There is a fundamental difference.

Obstructions are the “dams” that block the river. Constraints are the river banks — providing the contours of water, ensuring the water doesn’t disperse but rather is contained and flows with the current.

Allow me to share a brief story.

When I first started working for myself — working from home — I relished the thought that I could wake up without a set schedule. I didn’t have to catch a bus or a train or be in the office for a useless Monday meeting. I didn’t have to shave or put on a tie. In fact, other than a few scheduled calls, I could run the day by the seat of my pants, making up the agenda as I go.

Unconstrained freedom. What a stress reliever.

Or so I thought. 

As the months and years went by, I realized that the days with the most unconstrained freedom were the most stressful. Those are the days when the riverbanks eroded, and the water flooded into the surrounding areas, leaving me overwhelmed.

So many choices. Bouncing around from task to task. Forced to be reactive to the events of the day.

Over time, I realized this simple fact: Freedom without any constraints isn’t very liberating at all. In fact, it’s stifling. 

I was confusing constraints with obstructions. But the constraints are absolutely necessary to allow the free flow.  It’s the obstructions I have to remove.

What kind of restraints am I talking about? They are the things I blog about regularly here, including things like:

  • Batching calls to avoid conference call overload.
  • Scheduling the first several hours of my day so that it is automatic.
  • Tackling big projects in 90-minute-limited segments.
  • Only checking email at several “checkpoints” throughout the day.
  • Limiting the types and levels of clients and projects with whom I work.

Those are just a few, but you get the idea.

If the constraints aren’t there, then you’re not in control. If you’re not in control, that isn’t freedom at all. In fact, it’s bondage to the tyranny of reactive chaos.

I’m not advocating you build a robotic company with very little leeway to feel free and creative. Far from it. As Jim Collins writes in his timeless book, Good to Great, “The good-to-great companies built a consistent system with clear constraints, but they also gave people freedom and responsibility within the framework of that system.”

The constraints are simply the guide posts so you don’t run off the road. 

What constraints can you put in place to give yourself more freedom? What obstacles can you remove so that your system flows more freely?

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