Constraints Can Make You More Productive

on Apr 19, 2010

Having a seemingly less than optimal environment can actually boost your productivity. I recently had this experience firsthand when my desktop programming setup fell apart. Two of my three screens malfunctioned over the period of 2 months and I went from something like a 2x 1080p setup to a 1x 720p setup in terms of real estate. So when faced with a programming project, I had to minimize the clutter. Chat clients were kept hidden or off. The music player was left hidden with a playlist running. Browser tabs were kept to a minimal. And strangely enough, I got things done cause I had no other choice. Being in the middle of a project, I couldn’t close any part of it. And in having project stuff open, I couldn’t really open up anything else. POOF! Potential for distractions went down. Tremendously!

Another case: I composed this post on my laptop, in my parked car. With limited battery life and no power sources nearby, I was forced to make the most of whatever time I had with a usable machine. I found it easier to get more words out with the time pressure on (or maybe it was the sunny sky and cool breeze).

This phenomenon, triggered by a sense of urgency, also appears in procrastination. Productivity appears to increase exponentially as the deadline nears. It’s the constraint that forces us to focus and really get done what needs to be done. And at least from my own experiences, I tend to be more productive per task when I have a lot of things to take care of than only one thing to do. The knowledge that I only have a certain amount of time to get something done forces me to crank out work without getting distracted. Perhaps this could be a way to optimize efficiency (in ironic fashion). Suppose some task is dragging along slowly. Then maybe a good way to speed things up is to take on more things. New constraints will be present and then the original task may move to a cruising speed.

I realize there’s much potential for disaster in going about things this way. But it often helps to turn a problem upside down and approach it in the completely opposite way. The laptop composing environment is quite relaxing in its way. As for my desktop programming environment, I’m not sure yet. It’s still a huge nuisance to be without screen real estate and have to jump around between windows. But I’m certainly reconsidering how much I really need to be optimally productive since any extra space gets cluttered with unnecessary distractions. Perhaps less is more.