The Unexpected Benefits of Forced Constraints

Keep your options open.

Sounds right, doesn’t it? Isn’t it best to have as many choices as possible? I always thought so.

But something I heard Tim Ferris say on his podcast seemed to contradict this principle.

He said two words in passing and didn’t embellish much, but the words stood out to me: "Forced Constraints."

He was talking about the dog he recently adopted. He is famous for promoting a life of freedom, especially freedom to travel. He acknowledged that having a dog somewhat limits his ability to travel, but he found that forced constraints are a good thing.

I think he left it at that, but I have been thinking about those two words since.

Forced Constraints.

Forced Constraints are a good thing. That rang true to me.

It’s related to a marketing principle. Give customers too much choice, and they become paralyzed by indecision. Compare Apple’s laptop lineup with any PC maker: Dell, HP, etc. The average PC buyer can get overwhelmed by the sheer number of models and configurations. Apple provides very few choices. But almost anyone can find what they need within those choices.

I think the same is true with our life direction. We can’t do everything. And if everything is open to us, we can end up doing not enough of too much. Or we have too many choices, can’t decide what to do, and end up watching Netflix with a bucket of ice cream.

We have to make decisions that limit our choices. And that’s okay. We don’t need to stress about it.

Consider marriage. Most people choose their spouse early in life. Marriage is a forced constraint for the rest of your life (ideally). That’s a good thing. Instead of spending your life overwhelmed by the billions of potential partners on the Earth, you can focus on building a fulfilling relationship with one person.

Having kids is another forced constraint. Parents choose to give up most of their freedom in return for the joy of raising a family. You can’t do everything anyway, so why not focus on reading stories and watching football games and visiting the ER.

The same applies to careers. The further we get into our education and career, the more constrained we are in the directions we can go without completely starting over. That’s not something to be afraid of.

Of course, this principle should be applied with wisdom. We need to think carefully about the direction we want to take our lives. We need to be thorough in analyzing decisions.

We should keep our options open as long as we can, but we shouldn’t be afraid when it comes time to make a decision. Once we’ve made a decision, we shouldn’t feel inhibited by the corresponding constraints. We should embrace the constraints as guides to keep us focused on what we want most.

Keeping our options open and embracing forced constraints are not contradictory after all. Thank you Tim Ferris.

Question: What forced constraints have you chosen in your life, and how do you embrace them?