The liberation of limitations: How entrepreneurs, artists, and leaders use constraints to be more productive

For years, the dominant belief has been that limitations make us less creative, productive, and happy. And anyone who’s worked for an overbearing boss, been subject to a restricting bureaucracy, or tried to run a project without enough resources will probably agree.

But limitations get a bad rap.

Sure, we might think we want more time, bigger budgets, and more responsibility. But limitations are what make us buckle down and get things done. When used in the right way, limitations can empower us to think differently, stay focused, and actually be more productive and creative.

Let’s take a look at how entrepreneurs, artists, and leaders all use limitations to their advantage.

Parkinson’s Law and why limitations are one of our best tools for focus

It’s the night before a big assignment or project is due. And even though you’ve had a month to work on it, there’s somehow still 80% left to do before tomorrow morning.

It’s probably safe to say we’ve all been in some level of this scenario. And if you have, you’ve been subject to an idea called Parkinson’s Law (as well as some serious procrastination).

The “law” says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Meaning that if you give something 5 minutes to do, it’ll take 5 minutes.

While the law was meant to poke fun at the ways bureaucracies tend to grow (even when there’s no more real work to be done), it’s also a reminder that “more” doesn’t always equal “better”.

Or, as prolific author Issac Asimov phrased it:

“In ten hours a day you have time to fall twice as far behind your commitments as in five hours a day.”

When we think we have “all the time in the world” for a project, how often do we proactively work on it?

It’s limitations, not unlimited resources that help us stay focused. Limitations act as guardrails for our motivation, reminding us we have a destination we need to reach, and ensuring we don’t get too far off the path that will take us there.

As Steve Jobs famously said:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”

“I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Limitations can make you more productive, hit the finish line more often, and save your focus from slipping. Now, let’s dig into the specific situations where you can set limitations on yourself.

RescueTime can help you set limitations by tracking and analyzing your time spent on digital devices. Sign up for your free account today. 

Setting limitations at work

When you set limitations on how and what you work on, you save yourself from falling victim to the dreaded “I can do it all…” syndrome. You know, when despite your best interests you say yes to everything and everyone.

But this is a mistake. As author Scott Sonenshein writes in Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less, research shows that our work problems, challenges, and opportunities become more manageable with constraints in place.

Let’s look at a few key situations you can set limitations in:

Be specific on what jobs you will and won’t do

If you’re a freelancer or don’t have the same tasks every single day, you’re probably regularly asked to do things that don’t fall under your main duties. And while these new tasks can be great opportunities to learn, they can also distract you from your most important work.

By setting limitations and knowing what work you will and won’t do, you protect yourself from making poor choices around work.

For writer and Exist founder Belle B. Cooper, this meant being knowing specifically what she was willing to do for clients, and what she wasn’t:

“Knowing in advance what you’re comfortable with makes those situations where you’re asked to do something different or beyond the original scope a lot easier to deal with. You don’t question yourself or entertain different possibilities.”

By limiting the work you do, you change the conversation from “I can’t do this job” to “I don’t do this kind of work”. Which is more than just a semantic difference.

Research has actually shown that actively saying “I don’t” is psychologically empowering and can help us stay motivated to reach our goals.

Give yourself limited availability for meetings, admin, and distractions

In order to do our best work, we need to have long stretches of uninterrupted time. However, most of us don’t limit our calendar and daily schedule to reflect this.

And so what happens? Your days end up looking like Swiss cheese, filled with 20 minutes here and there for “quick catch ups” and meetings. Rather than keep your schedule wide open, knowing exactly when you’re available means you’re working on your schedule. Not someone else’s.

Going one step further, you can follow the advice of Facebook VP of Product, Fidji Simo, and limit the time you have available for meetings.

Set your availability to just 10-15 minutes and have the organizer ask for more if they think they’ll need it. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can get things done when you know you have limited time.

Keep your toolbox to a minimum

I’m as guilty as the next person for wanting to try out every new tool out there. But while new and exhaustive features can help in some scenarios, most of the time they’re just another layer of potential distractions.

Instead, limiting the tools you use to just what you need right now, means you’ll be less likely to get pulled off doing something extraneous.

As entrepreneur Jason Zook explains:

“When you have the right tool, it fades into the background and allows you to focus on the task at hand.”

If you’re a writer, look for word processors without formatting options like IA Writer or Text Edit. Or, see if the apps you use the most have some form of “distraction free” mode.

Setting limitations on your creativity

Limitations and creativity might sound like they don’t go hand-in-hand. But constraints are actually one of the best tools you can use to help with creative work.

Rather than be faced with the unlimited potential of a blank page, limitations help you get started. Think of them as a mental template. A starting place that puts you in a comfortable space to create.

As research has found, when people face scarcity in resources “they give themselves freedom to use resources in less conventional ways–because they have to.”

“The situation demands a mental license that would otherwise remain untapped.”

This “mental license” usually translates to creative thought. How do you do a task when you don’t have the tools or resources you’re used to having?

This is called “little c” creativity—where you’re not necessarily focused on creating new, original works, but on solving practical problems through new uses and applications of resources.

In fact, when researchers examined how people design new products, having a lower budget significantly increased how resourceful people were in responding to these challenges, leading to better results.

But, what about setting limitations on original work?

When it comes to original work—or “Big C” creativity—the same strategy of limitations works.

In their book, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, Kathleen Eisenhardt and Donald Sull explained how famous artists have always given themselves constraints:

“Truly original artists work by imposing constraints on themselves, in terms of the subjects they paint, materials they use, and artists they draw upon for inspiration. Monet, for example, purposefully limited his subjects, repeatedly painting pictures, by the dozens, of subjects like grain stacks and water lilies.”

“This self-imposed constraint allowed him to focus on exploring how light changes, and his exploration helped spark a transition in the art world from representation to impressionism, setting the stage for twentieth-century artists such as Picasso.”

In your work or creative projects, setting these kinds of limitation can help you break through creative blocks and perfect your craft.

Setting limitations on the content you consume

Of course, we all know we should set limitations on entertainment if we want to be more productive. But what about all the other “good” forms of content we consume every day?

  • World news to keep us informed and connected?
  • Research on projects or ideas?
  • Advice for doing things better and faster?

There’s a sense that we need to “know it all” and that these good distractions are OK because we’re using them to learn and grow.

However, they’re also one of the easiest ways to get distracted and lose focus on what’s truly important. Especially when it comes to news, it can be exhausting and overwhelming to deal with and vet so much information.

Setting limitations on when, how, and where you get your news is one quick fix.

That could mean skipping online news and sticking to a printed newspaper. Or selecting a few resources that you trust and checking them at specific times during the day. Whatever you choose, the idea is to limit your sources and protect yourself from “drinking from the firehose” of news overload.

And what about limiting research and advice?

News and entertainment are one thing. But how do you set limits on consuming content you need to for your work?

Habit coach James Clear suggests following the 20/80 rule. Spend 20% of your time researching and 80% exploiting what you already know.

For example, limit your daily research to an hour for every four hour of writing/creating/work you do.

Of course, this could change on what stage of progress you are on a project. But by limiting your time spent on research you have more time to learn from actual experience.


Before you say “I can’t do this until/unless…” remember that working with what you have now can be a powerful tool.

Limitations force us to think differently, stay true to our beliefs, and keep our focus in check. And as a bonus, acknowledging and accepting your limitations can help you battle procrastination and build momentum in your work.

How do you use limitations in your own work? Let us know in the comments or tell us on Twitter or Facebook.

Photos by Joshua Hoehne and Dmitry Ratushny.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

2 comments

  1. “Real design comes from working within constraints” was the first thing I heard in design school, but it’s SO easy to forget, and so easy to fall into the trap of thinking it doesn’t apply in certain situations. The “I can do it all” syndrome has been a huge issue for me, especially since taking on my latest role at my company (CEO, where you’re ultimately responsible for everything!) In the last several months I’ve taken a hard look at everything I was trying to do and whittle it back to the most important things I can add value on. Since adding those constraints on my workday, I’m much happier and feel like my contributions are a lot better. Instead of having 20 spinning plates to tend to every day, I have just a few things, and now I have the brain space to think hard about them and find the right solutions instead of the quick band-aids that let me move on to the next thing.

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