BL&T No. 026: Embracing Constraints to Go Beyond Limits

Personal Growth

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"You don’t really know what your body’s capable of until you actually do it. There’s a lot of limitations that are placed upon yourself based on what other people are doing. I remember the first time I deadlifted 400 pounds when I said I was going to deadlift 500 pounds. Everyone thought I was crazy, that it was impossible, that there’s no way I could do it at that body weight.

And then look, magical things happen. And I trained really hard, obviously trained intelligently, and was able to achieve things that no other woman had ever been capable of doing. What’s interesting to me ... after I did that, there were several girls that were able to achieve that 500 pound deadlift mark. As soon as people see that there’s something that is humanly possible, it’s almost like it gives them the strength, or it allows them to be able to chase those same goals."

Dr. Stefi Cohen on The Tim Ferriss Show (#491)


Around this time last year, I was daydreaming about a plant-based breakfast burrito from a neighborhood cafe. I only had the opportunity to visit a few times before it closed due to the rising pandemic. After a week of cravings, I decided to take action. When Saturday morning came around, I got to work on learning the fine art of crafting the perfect breakfast burrito. Dana was a happy customer:

Last year taught me just how driven I am by constraints. Like many people unable to continue their regular daily routines, I sought out alternate pathways for success. My constraints became my inspiration. Over time, I experienced new progress in various aspects of my life, like fitness and... baking (I had a similar craving for a giant chocolate chip cookie).

While I've always quickly adapted to changing conditions and worked well under pressure, these were examples of constraints placed on me. I began to see that I could design constraints in my life and use them deliberately to achieve next level results. Constraints became a new tool in my toolkit. I looked for other ways to put it to use.

At the time, it seemed like everyone was talking about a sudden influx of meetings. In-person office chatter became 30 minute+ calls on Zoom. While navigating many meetings was not new for me, working from home gave me a new perspective.

Despite all of the meetings I was in, I noticed an imbalance of my time with our senior designers. If we weren't working on a project together, we might not have a meaningful interaction outside monthly 1-1s. It became clear how much I relied on impromptu desk check-ins at the office. These were my direct reports. Was my time going in the right places?

At first, my desire for more consistent design reviews and check-ins seemed counterproductive to more focused work time. Then, I realized that this would only be true if left without constraints.

I started brainstorming what it would look like to designate one day (the same every week) to senior designers. This idea evolved into a desired future state where every day had a focus. I opened my calendar, dove into my notes, and started building a vision. I knew it would be unrealistic to shift important recurring meetings, so I used them as a starting point.

Here is what I wrote:

  • Mondays are the most open. At the start of the week, this will be a perfect day to make progress on initiatives.
  • Tuesdays begin with our weekly business development meeting. I can do my best to schedule new business calls and work during the rest of the day. With a few days left in the week, there should be plenty of time to get a proposal out the door by Friday.
  • Wednesdays start with our weekly partner meeting. In the middle of the week, this will make a perfect day for a work session and check-in with each senior designer.
  • Thursdays are our weekly design team meetings. I can leave the rest of the day open for internal/client discussions and work.
  • Fridays (half-days) begin with 1-1s with Peter and Christine. I can use the remaining hour to tie up any loose ends and prep for the coming week. Note: schedule in this time.

With this vision captured, I took two next steps. First, I canceled all upcoming meetings with the three senior designers. Second, I scheduled 1-hour block with each on Wednesdays.

Funny enough, the neighborhood cafe had just reopened for takeout. Anxious to deliver the news to the senior designers, I took the call en route to burrito heaven. One of them (who had the most check-ins) was skeptical, but overall, they were on board. Since the rollout, the skeptic has embraced new ways of collaborating (like shared notes). All of us are more locked in than ever.

I share this with you today because it wasn't until the last couple of weeks that I noticed my vision coming to fruition. Success has been the result of constant discipline and countless small decisions over time. Through the process, constraints have pushed me to be more effective at decision-making, managing my time, and communicating. In the end, they have helped me realize a vision that once seemed out of reach.

Here are a few simple tactics that have helped me stay on track:

  • Calendly for all external meetings. Strict availability rules according to my weekly plan.
  • Work blocks on the calendar for any key initiatives. Typically pre-scheduled on Fridays for the following week. Creating space in your day is just as important as having a plan for how to use it.
  • Weekly reviews on Fridays and Mondays (also scheduled) to clarify the coming week's events.

I've since designed constraints for activities like reading, journaling, writing, and eating. It may sound over the top, but I'll tell you what, I've never felt better about my personal growth.

Lesson? By definition, constraints = limitations, but that doesn't mean they have to hold us back. When we embrace them, we discover new ways to achieve our desired outcome. If we can't fall back on what we know, we have to get creative. We grow. Who doesn't want to grow?

Don't wait for constraints. Design them, use them with intent, and in time, you may find yourself in a world beyond your limits.

Thought Starter

Where am I treating constraints as an excuse for not pushing forward?

Join My Newsletter

Every Monday, I share weekly themes and progress in running an agency business/team and doing my best to live a good life. Details