When I first graduated college I had virtually no marketable real world skills. What I did have though was drive, and an endless amount of time and energy. The way I made myself valuable at that time was to be willing to work 80 hour work weeks to get things done in a small but growing business. Every time someone quit or was fired, I offered to take on their tasks, which led to more learning, responsibility, and overtime pay. Ultimately I requested to be switched to salary knowing full well I’d be missing out on OT in some cases, but I knew the hours would only be able to go down from that point so locking in something reliable was worth doing. From then on I read every time management book I could get my hands on to figure out how to do more with less time.
For years this was a point of pride. I worked more than most people I knew, and therefore I thought I had a better work ethic. As I’ve matured just a little though I now no longer look at working late as a badge of honor or necessity to prove your worth or dedication, especially now that I have a family. In fact, it’s a very rare thing indeed for me to be in my office even 5 minutes after 5pm. I don’t leave at 5pm because I’m counting the minutes until the bell rings though, it’s because it’s a conscious constraint I’ve set for myself. I’ve learned it’s almost always ok to wait another day, the work will be waiting and you’ll be able to complete projects by their deadlines. Getting it done on day one by staying late is not efficient if you end up with free time to browse the internet the next day. Of course there are exceptions to this when there is urgent work to be done, but that is not the norm. So with that in mind, I thought I’d explore some of the constraints I have in my life that have improved it dramatically.
Time With Family – Since I usually have less than 2 hours to spend with my son on weeknights before he’s asleep, I always tend to have much higher quality time with him during the week than on the weekends. This is because I know I only have this sliver of my day, so I should try and be fully focused on him. I can get on social media or catch up on email after he’s asleep, but this is my one chance. On the weekends, on the other hand, we have two full days together that are usually unplanned, so the urgency and importance fades away to some extent and isn’t as focused. The same goes for time with my wife. She usually works on her photography at night, so our time together is very limited during the week. This ensures we usually make sure we’re having undistracted conversations if we’re actually going to hang out during the week, whereas we’re not as good at that on the weekends. So the constraints of routine weekdays actually help us to be more present and use our time together more wisely.
Time At The Gym – I go to the gym on my lunch break 2-3 times a week. This means I have roughly an hour to get there, do my workout, shower, and get back. Having this hour constraint means I have to try to get the most out of every minute I have. I keep earphones in and never get into small talk with others at the gym. I can’t afford to get lazy in between sets and wait too long either, and I generally can’t afford any form of distraction or doubt about the next set. Ever since I started lifting like this, as opposed to going after work and taking my time, I’ve been able to increase my weights to well beyond any personal records I had at any point earlier in my life when I thought I was a hotshot. This time constraint has helped for sure.
Work Projects / Meetings – I try to put everything I have going on right onto my calendar. This includes any project I may be working on in my office that isn’t a meeting. When I book up my week like this it requires that I stay on schedule so that I don’t fall behind. If I have a whole week to accomplish something, it’s less motivating to work on it, than if I have 2 hours specifically scheduled at which time I need to complete the task. This constraint creates greater urgency and also ensures that it will get done, at least for me. Having a time constraint on meetings also makes them infinitely more productive, otherwise, we tend to fill the empty space with noise. Luckily, my work environment right now isn’t one of excessive meetings, so it’s not something current for me.
Personal Finance – Another huge area where constraints will dramatically improve your life is of course in your finances. Spending less than you earn will give you a dramatically higher quality of life than living on car payments, credit cards, and being house poor. I learned this the hard way right out of college, but luckily I learned the lesson early enough in life to where it was bad enough to stick with me in a significant way, but not bad enough to ruin my finances forever. Learning to show constraint with finances though can ultimately be the difference in retiring broke or retiring a multi millionaire, regardless of your income level.
It seems we live in a time where constraints are unpopular, and discipline is not seen as a virtue. World religions that preach prudence, moderation and constraints are largely shunned and ridiculed as out of date, driving old cars (or just a bike!) and delaying gratification are considered unusual, and working so much you don’t get to sleep enough is considered something worthy of bragging about. There’s no denying though that nearly all important things in life are made better through constraints. The medicine doesn’t taste good initially, but the results are worth it. What constraints have you put on yourself to great effect?