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This time of year is always sacred to me. It’s an invitation to slow down and spend a little more time with those I care deeply about. But this year, I’m navigating a bit of a balancing act. 

Besides my work serving coaching clients, I’m also in full production mode on a new creative project. 

After seven plus years, and thousands of hours of coaching, I’ve decided to create a program that will break down the steps for becoming a profitable and in-demand coach. 

This will not be theory. It will be the same step-by-step process that I used to generate a six-figure coaching business in my second year as a coach and reach $200k in my third year. You’ll be hearing more about this soon.

This is the kind of project that could keep me lost in a loop of perfectionism for months on end. And the truth is that building such a thing requires a serious commitment of time and energy. 

But what I’ve found in my career, over and over again, is that without constraints in place, things take too long or simply never get finished. 

Constraints can seem like the last thing you’d want for a creative project, but they’re actually beneficial when it comes to doing good work.

If you’ve ever faced the common writer’s hurdle of the blank page, you’ll know what it’s like to be paralyzed by innumerable opportunities. What constraints do is take away some of the choices available to you, and with them, the paralysis of choice that stops you from getting started and making progress.

Parkinson’s Law

Coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955, Parkinson’s Law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” While it was initially designed as a mathematical equation describing the rate at which work expands over time, Parkinson’s Law can be applied to many areas, including the way you work.

In simple terms, Parkinson’s Law means that if you take a 2-hour task and allocate 4 hours to get it done, you will end up spending 4 hours working on the task. You may do more research, procrastinate, overthink your approach – the resulting work may be the same, but you will have ended up spending twice as much time as necessary on the task.

The good news? Parkinson’s Law also works in reverse. Taking a task you think will take 4 hours and only allocating 2 hours to it will likely result in completing the task in under 2 hours. Applying the corollary to Parkinson’s law: “work contracts to fit in the time we give it.”

Work better and faster

You may be wondering about the quality of the work if you begin applying constraints to finish it quicker. Would forcing yourself to work in a limited amount of time result in lower quality output? It turns out, constraints can actually make you more creative. A recent study looked at how thinking about scarcity or abundance influences how people use their resources.

Researchers found that when people face scarcity, they give themselves the freedom to use resources in less conventional ways – because they have to. The situation demands creativity which would otherwise remain untapped.

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” 

— Igor Stravinsky, Composer, Pianist, and Conductor.

Using constraints to fuel your productivity and creativity

Following Parkinson’s Law is a simple way to achieve more and unleash your creativity. Here are three ways I use constraints to get more done.

Time blocking. Instead of just listing important tasks as daily to-do’s, I come up with the three most important things I need to complete during the week and then I work on these projects in predetermined blocks of time. This may feel a little loosey-goosey, but that’s exactly the point. Go for building in uninterrupted work sessions that give you space during the week to accomplish your most important projects. 

Stop working at a specific time. In Deep Work, Cal Newport explains how he earned his PhD. from MIT by forcing himself to finish his workday at 5 pm. Of course, we always feel like there’s more to be done, but this will force you to tackle the most important things before the end of your work day.

Create deadlines and work backward. This is my favorite hack for getting big projects done. Using my example project from above, I started by setting the date that I will launch my new program (Ex. April 8, 2020).

Then, I set the date at which I will end my program launch (Ex. April 21, 2020).

Continuing to work backward, I established the dates at which I will run 3-4 webinars to promote my new program (Ex. April 1 – 7, 2020).

And finally, I decided on the start and end date for my 30-day pre-launch runway (Ex. March 2 – 31).

Knowing my launch and promotion dates ahead of time gives me a concrete marker to have my program content completed and ready to sell.

The artificial constraint can feel a bit stressful at first, but once you’ve done it a few times to get projects done quicker and more creatively, you won’t come back to just tackling your to-do list.

Making the most of predetermined constraints

Parkinson’s Law is sometimes misunderstood because of the many spin-offs of the original idea. For example, you may have heard this one: “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.” 

The main problem here is that it’s simply not true. 

The second problem is that it can be interpreted as an argument for procrastination. 

Instead, apply these common-sense principles:

  • Set reasonable deadlines. Create enough constraint to unlock your creativity, but be realistic. There is no point in trying to work on something that should take a couple of days in a couple of hours. Trying to be more productive will not magically turn you into a superhuman.
  • Commit. Make sure you take the deadlines seriously. Announcing them to a friend or colleague is a great way to create some pressure so you stick to your deadline. Having other predetermined constraints such as a weekly accountability meeting with a friend or coach also works wonders.
  • Review and iterate. It can take a bit of trial and error to figure out how much time you can save by using predetermined constraints. After you’re done with a task or project, take a few minutes to reflect. How did it feel? Did I manage to get it done? Could I have finished it quicker? Use Parkinson’s Law to get better over time.

Have you used constraints to aid your creativity and create more freedom? How did it go? 

If you liked this article then you might also like What To Do When You Have Too Much To Do.

Live bravely,

Michael

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