Tim Ferriss, the bestselling author of the Four Hour Work Week, talked about getting a dog, Molly. He said that having a dog has helped him be more productive. I thought, what, that doesn’t make sense. Having a dog means you have to walk the dog, feed the dog, play with the dog, etc. You have many obligations that you wouldn’t have if you didn’t have a dog.

The idea of positive constraints

Going into the idea, he said that when he travels or has to make plans, he has to think about the logistics of having Molly with him. For example, if he’s travelling, he has to make sure he plans ahead with getting a ride, carrying a crate around for the dog, being able to check-in properly at the airlines, and making sure wherever he is staying is okay with pets. To me, that sounds like a lot more work than just not having a dog and being able to stay wherever. But to Tim, the planning and the logistics make him think through his plans.

You have used positive constraints too, but you just didn’t know it

Think about the last time you were working and had a vacation or a long weekend coming up. You weren’t planning to work during your time off so you wanted to get as much done as you could before the weekend or vacation. The upcoming time off was a positive constraint, it gave you a deadline to complete things.

Or here’s another scenario: you book drinks and dinner with some coworkers at 5 PM. It’s funny how productive you are when you see the time is 4 PM and you still have emails to respond to, presentations to develop and work to submit to your boss. You’re not just productive, but you also prioritize strategically knowing you can’t do everything in an hour.

How to use positive constraints to make you more productive at work

Funny thing about that 4 PM rush, why don’t you have the same push for productivity all the time when you don’t have drinks and dinner with coworkers at 5 PM? I believe a lot of it comes down to thinking I have the time for it all so I don’t need to rush or prioritize anything specifically.

One of my coworkers seems to have the same challenge: if there isn’t any deadline, he takes it easy at work doing whatever work comes his way. But the moment there’s a deadline, he buckles down and gets things done. He is even aware of the phenomenon himself, but despite having lots of time to get work done and knowing how much stress he goes through leaving work till the last day, he still procrastinates on the work.

How do you make these positive constraints work for you? Here are a few tactics I use:

  • If I have control over scheduling meetings, I’ll make sure I have blocks of time in between meetings. The meetings represent a positive constraint for me – I can’t get anything done during those meetings because I am 100% focused on getting the most out of the meeting itself, but if I schedule back to back meetings, I won’t have a ‘false’ deadline of getting work done before the next meeting.
  • If I don’t have deadlines for work (i.e., it is up to me to get the work done in a timely manner), I will set up a deadline for when I need to write that report or develop the presentation. Although I am okay at keeping myself accountable, I find it is more effective to schedule meetings with people to review that report or presentation – that way, you have to get something done otherwise the meeting would be a waste of you and your coworker’s time.
  • Scheduling early morning meetings can be a great way to ensure you start work early. Beware, this can also be a risk because it is easy to sleep in or otherwise miss the morning meeting.
  • Although I’ve talked previously about working out in the mornings, I find working out after work to be a nice stress reliever and a positive constraint. I work from home, and I set appointments with myself to work out at 5:30 – which means I need to get all of my work done for the day before then so I can exercise.
  • When you have open days, block off focused time for your work, but throw in a few coffees or a lunch date with your partner so that you have events to signpost your day. I find this to be a great way to be more productive on weekends too. If you know you have to be at brunch at 11 but you want to get in a workout and some writing in the morning, then you know you can’t just sleep in until 10.

Whether it’s having a pet, scheduling meetings with friends and coworkers, or setting appointments with yourself, positive constraints can help give you a specific deadline for which to get work done, and that can make all the difference to your productivity.