Let Constraints Set You Free

June 18, 2020 ☼ Philosophy

I originally published this on my substack.

This morning I rested my chin on the sill of the open window as I showered. The lights were off and the only illumination came from the soft warm glow of the early sun rising over the distant mountains, filtered through the trees. Gazing aimlessly into the backyard through the steam, I wondered, as I have for months, is this the right thing to do?

I closed my eyes and let the hot water rush over me. I breathed deep to inhale the crisp morning air, still humid from a night of warm summer thunderstorms. Taking in the smell of the damp trees and earth, I held my breath as long as I could, knowing that I could never have that exact moment again. Then I exhaled.

Tomorrow we are listing our home for sale. Yes, the one that has dirt under it.

Our home was built in 1931 and has “character.” I love that character, even if said character sometimes means costly maintenance. I love the giant, old trees that line our neighborhood. I love the smell of them, even if my sinuses do not agree with their pollens. I love the experiences we’ve had here, in our first home. I love that my home is a duplex: we have had some fun experiences as Airbnb hosts, with guests from all over the world staying next door.

A thing about old homes—well, probably all homes, but especially old homes—is that they come with an endless list of projects.

Monday night, as my wife and I sat exhausted on the floor, we surveyed all the things we (with the help of our amazing neighbor) had accomplished that day. I was overwhelmed by strange, difficult competing emotions… Regret? Relief? Frustration? Peace? Loss? Freedom? In a single day, we knocked years worth of items from our endless todo list. But now we were enjoying them on borrowed time.

We didn’t have to spend four years with wires sticking out of the hole in the wall where the old thermostat was. All we needed was 15 minutes of focus.

The time pressures of the impending sale gave us the constraints we needed to focus on the problem. It was the constraints that set us free from our procrastination.

It feels counter-intuitive that the things that limit our options can give us more freedom.

The constraint of 140 characters pushed us to communicate in new, creative ways. I think it made some of us better writers.

The constraints of an opinionated framework like Ruby on Rails are frustrating to those who like to build their whole web stack from scratch and have control over every layer. But, viewed another way, the constraints let you focus on other important problems—focusing on the core competencies of the business.

Most of us are familiar with the paradox of staring numbly at infinity movies and TV shows on Netflix and finally shutting the Apple TV off because we couldn’t find a single thing to watch. Yet children immediately know exactly which two movies they want to watch every single time. (I recently watched The Black Cauldron on Disney+ and was stunned by how many things I could quote, despite not having watched the movie in over 20 years.)

I’m really bad at science, but I think there are some parallels. In fluid dynamics, as fluid begins to travel through a narrow space it goes faster. If you focus light through a magnifying glass, it gets real strong and can burn stuff. There is probably other science stuff to be said here, but let’s just say: Our attention is a form of energy that goes faster and burns leaves when focused.

Find constraints that motivate you to create, and to focus on the things that matter. Don’t let yourself live in a home you love for four years with wires sticking out of the wall.