The value of hard constraints

Hard constraints can be an incredibly powerful force and incentive. Though uncomfortable, putting them in place can force you to innovate and accelerate learning. Despite the benefits, we tend to avoid hard constraints. It’s generally easier to have more flexibility in our lives. This principle applies in work and personal settings.

Here are a few personal examples to help illustrate.

  1. Learning and speaking a foreign language. When I moved to Dusseldorf in 2016, I was determined to learn German. I started using Duolingo daily and signed up for weekly 1-on-1 private tutoring with a local language instructor. I shared an office with an Austrian woman who spoke multiple languages comfortably. During the first few months, she would start each morning speaking to me in German; nothing work related, just simple questions (“how is your morning going? How was your drive?” etc.). I sort of stumbled through and was generally embarrassed about my lack of competency. I would routinely default back to English and after a while she gave up on the German. If I went out to a restaurant or café, I would start by speaking in German. I’m clearly a native English speaker and nine times out of ten, whoever I was speaking to would start responding in English. To ease my discomfort, I’d then continue in English. As a result, I really didn’t build any proficiency in German and the limited bit I learned has mostly been forgotten. I’m confident if I had imposed a hard constraint on myself, such as demanding my colleague exclusively speak to me in German, I would have vastly improved my skill despite it being uncomfortable. In this case, I relaxed any constraints and chose convenience and comfort at the expense of learning.

  2. Mastering excel and powerpoint shortcuts. A key competency in Investment Banking is mastering excel and powerpoint. To be most efficient requires you to use keyboard shortcuts instead of your mouse. Once you’ve mastered all the keyboard shortcuts, you’re able to produce work at a significantly faster pace. When I first started in banking in 2011, I was familiar with excel and powerpoint but mostly reliant on my mouse. I started to learn some shortcuts but was progressing slowly. Then one day, a more senior Analyst in my office unplugged my mouse and told me he would return it in a week. Suddenly, I had no other option but to use shortcuts for everything. At first, it was painful. Simple tasks took forever. But after a week, I was able to operate entirely using shortcuts. The fixed constraint (no mouse) dramatically accelerated my pace of learning and forced me to master a skill I’m confident otherwise would have taken many months.

Having hard constraints imposed is uncomfortable. It’s also often necessary to unlock improvement. Generally, if you ask someone to create something in three weeks, they will take three weeks. If you ask someone to create something in one week, they will take one week. Imposing hard constraints is often a balance between uncomfortable and unreasonable and setting those lines is an art in of itself.