We often believe that constraints are hurdles to overcome. It is human nature to rebel in the face of rules- we do it as teenagers against society and we do it as adults against structure. Adolescence revolution is the result of asserting a self-made identity over the one given by authority figures. Adult rebellion usually happens around mid-life and is the result of a different type of identity crisis. One day, the adult looks up and realizes they have the freedom to do anything they want. They run away with this seemingly unlimited ability and buy sports cars or new houses. But they soon find that living without limits is not only unsustainable- it is unfulfilling.
These people have spent the last 30 years building and designing their life- it comes as a shock to me that they feel as if they have no control over it. I have a theory that the adults going through a mid-life crisis actually have more freedom than they know what to do with- which results in illogical buying sprees and reckless binges. I believe this behavior indicates that they are desperately searching for someone to tell them to stop because they cannot stop themselves- they do not know how to self-regulate. The problem is: the bank and the police are not the authorities you want reigning you in.
The best person to create and enforce rules for you is the person in the mirror. If the rebellious adult was able to set limits and adhere to them, their sense of agency and ability would skyrocket. Instead of thinking, “this is all I’ll have until I die” a person would think, “I have 50 more years to design my life however I want.” The latter is a huge perception shift that leads to optimism.
Limits don’t smother greatness, they breed opportunity
Sometimes this concept is easier to grasp when it’s less personal. Take, for example, a small startup company started by a single woman in her late 20’s. She had a brilliant idea but no formal business training or startup capital. Luckily, she had grit and determination. She used her constraints to compel creativity rather than let them define her failure. For example, she had no money for marketing so she spent most of her efforts on word-of-mouth promotion. This was one of her early secrets to wild-fire growth. The quality of the product was great, but even more importantly, it was advocated for by friends to friends. Once she was sure she had a hit, she took her product to Venture Capitalists. The male investors could not understand why anyone would want to buy footless pantyhose and thus, not one of them invested. The constraint of being a female in a predominantly male industry coupled with the hindrance of not having the kind of business sense necessary to sell hard in the boardroom left Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, with zero investment and 100% ownership of what is now a multi-billion dollar company.
How and when to set limits
The majority of adults split their time between home, social, and work atmospheres. To ensure you are setting the right limits for yourself, it is important to first take a look at the current state of affairs.
Split the sectors of your life into separate categories (work/ home/ social) and create new categories if you decide that you would like them to exist (travel/ hobby/ charity). Once you’ve divided the general sections, it should be clear which elements are giving you joy and which are restricting you.
For example, one of my personal main categories is health. It is important to me to stay healthy and live a really long time. To do this, fitness must be a priority. However, with no limits I would essentially live at the gym- and that is not joyful for me. So, I limit my self to an hour per session and no more than 5 sessions per week. Sometimes I only go twice a week, other times I go 6 days in a row- it is not a perfect science- but in general, I know what target I need to hit to feel the most productive as a whole.
It is my recommendation that these kinds of flexible limits be applied to all of the important objectives in your life. At first, you may be stuck trying to come up with self-imposed rules because human beings are not the best self-regulators but if you are persistent you will find your pattern.
Below I have listed some examples to inspire your psyche:
- At work, hold 1 hour per day on your calendar for deep (undisrupted) work and hold a 30 min to 1 hour of zero work. During the zero work time, you can do anything except work- go for a walk, read a book, grab a relaxing cup of tea and people watch at a coffee shop.
- Never put for than 5 things on a to-do list at once. Chances are good that you will make it all the way through a list of 5 items but chances are slim of you making it 1/3 of the way down a 15 item long list. Make sure you’re setting yourself up for productivity-based success.
- At home, set a time for bed and a productive alternative (like reading a book or writing) for the instances when you aren't tired.
The goal is to set realistic expectations and the key is to make them flexible. Holding yourself to impossible standards is not going to make you perfect, it is going to make you feel inadequate. When you create your own rules and adhere to them, you will not only experience greater control over your life but you will actually be way more productive. This level of ability is powerful and leads to a willingness to take on new challenges. When you overcome obstacles that seemed impossible, you build your self-confidence. Embracing your self-imposed limits is the force that will propel you to greatness.