How Tight Constraints Stimulate Practice Growth

Most everything I own fits in a carry-on bag.

I gave the rest of my stuff away two years ago when I embarked on a nomadic lifestyle. Limiting myself to what I can easily carry onboard a plane makes life simpler. It’s easy to move quickly. I can skip the baggage carousel line, and I don’t stress about lost luggage.

Of course, sometimes not having much stuff is inconvenient. As I mentioned in a recent post, I’m annoyed when my shoes get wet. Owning a single pair of shoes is a problem when I accidentally step into a puddle.

For the most part, confining myself to a carry-on bag has worked well. The limitation forces me to buy the right items. I’ve got to be certain that the items I stick in the bag get the job done. I can’t afford to waste space on luxuries or rarely-used items.

A Change in Perspective

Most of us view constraints negatively. We perceive limitations as external forces keeping us from having it all. We push back when we’re constrained.

Originally, that’s how I felt too. I viewed the carry-on bag constraint as a burden. But I see it differently now. I’ve come to view the limitation as a positive in my life.

My luggage constraint forces me to…

  • Thoughtfully consider what I carry. Each item (down to the spare earbuds) is carefully considered.
  • Carefully choose only the highest-quality items. I need my stuff to work well. I buy high-end pants and underwear because I need them to last. I’ve picked out exceptional socks. I’ve got one highly functional, wrinkle-free shirt for dress occasions.
  • Creatively explore new options. I’m forced to use each item for multiple purposes. I’ve got to figure out which items match with others. I have to determine, in advance, how to layer items for warmth or cut things back when it’s hot. The constraint keeps me thinking about ever more creative approaches.

Constraints aren’t all bad. They drive us to do better. They encourage us to think. They require us to measure cost against benefit and to optimize each decision so that we act within the limits of the situation.

We whine about our business constraints as well. We push back. We get annoyed. We argue with others about why we can’t do what we’re required to do within the walls closing in around us.

But constraints are present, regardless of whether we like them. We can allow them to negatively affect our performance, or we can view them as opportunities to do our best work.

Constraints Are Everywhere

Constraints come in all shapes and sizes. They eliminate our options, but we can choose to rise to the occasion.

When the judge limits us to two hours of evidence, we can be frustrated by the seemingly arbitrary rule. Or we can put on the best two hours of evidence ever presented. We might use the most efficient witnesses, create amazing graphics, or produce a powerfully emotional video.

When the court limits us to a 15-minute closing argument, we can be upset, or we can deliver an impactful summation that brings our client to tears and moves the court.

When a client is unable to pay as much as we’d like to spend, we can find a more creative way to prepare the case, conduct the discovery, present the evidence, and frugally master the circumstances.

When our marketing budget is limited by our profitability, we can explore new technologies and ideas. We can try something different, less expensive, and more creative.

When our time is limited by a deadline, we can find ways to do it faster, employ different types of assistance, and get it done more efficiently.

When our client won’t follow our advice no matter how hard we push, we can find alternative ways to achieve the same result. Human relationships impose the most difficult constraints but have the most potential for revealing alternatives.

Don’t Give Up—Get Busy

Constraints aren’t comfortable. They create the “it can’t be done” mentality.

But when we know we’ve got to create results—without regard to the limitations of the situation—we accept reality. That’s when our creative energy gets flowing. That’s when we start looking at the circumstances differently. We don’t give up. We get busy.

Constraints force us out of our comfort zone. They require us to step back, reassess, and organize our thoughts. Constraints force us to find a better way to achieve the outcome. The new method often survives even when the constraints are lifted.

Looking at my practice, I see a direct connection between constraints and our adoption of a cloud-based phone system. The same is true of our cloud-based practice management system.

Constraints required us to streamline our approach to litigation, systematize our business, reduce our use of office space dramatically, limit our headcount, shift work to contractors, and eliminate the use of paper. Constraints have been good for us. They have forced us forward.

You can create your own positive constraints. Maybe you need more limitations instead of fewer. What if imposing constraints on yourself were the key to getting your desired results?

  • What if, instead of believing that you need more money for marketing, you required yourself to find a way to hit the target with an even smaller budget?
  • What if, instead of believing that you need more staff to get the work done, you cut your staff by 20% and found different ways to crank it out?
  • What if, instead of believing that your clients will insist on certain communication modalities, you limited yourself to interacting with them by alternative means you can control, which keeps them satisfied?

As I’ve learned the power of constraints, I’ve increasingly imposed them upon myself. They prompt me, motivate me, and result in a positive change—usually. Adding more money, more people, or more resources is rarely a long-term solution. Adding more just pushes back the inevitable day of reckoning.

Constraints Create Solutions Right Now

To illustrate, let’s apply this lesson to your income.

What would happen if you set an income goal and started paying yourself as if you’d already hit the revenue and expense targets? I meet many lawyers who are generating revenue but spending it as quickly as it comes in. They’ve got healthy revenue but minimal personal income. Is that you?

What if you started paying yourself your goal amount right now? Cash would suddenly be in short supply. See the constraint?

You’d be forced to stop spending extra money to keep paying yourself. You might have to cut payroll. You might have to reduce marketing expenditures. You might have to become more efficient.

The constraint forces you to increase revenue or cut expenses (or both) to satisfy your commitment. The constraints would be artificial, but they’d be real if you decided to make them real.

When you’re forced to operate within constraints, you’re immediately outside of your comfort zone. You’re required to abandon the old way. The old ideas, approaches, and resources only create the old results.

The new constraints mean that it’s time for a new way, a different way, and maybe a better way. Constraints demand immediate action. They shove us forward.

Constraints, regardless of whether they’re imposed by others or by yourself, push you to be thoughtful, efficient, and creative. Thinking differently opens possibilities, options, and the potential for something better that might be something more.

How can you impose constraints on yourself to start moving forward?

  • Can you limit your work hours?
  • Can you eliminate a “required” expense?
  • Can you decline certain types of clients?
  • Can you use deadlines to limit yourself?
  • Can you limit the size of your team?
  • Can you narrow the types of cases you accept?
  • Can you focus on one thing for a period of time?

These examples are merely intended to get your wheels spinning. Use them to give your edges definition—to narrow your focus so you can bring your best effort into the mix.

Don’t wait for something external to impose the constraints. Find ways to use constraints to improve your output with internal pressure.

It’s Time to Do Better

I never thought I’d reduce my life to a carry-on bag. In fact, my bag gets lighter each month, if only by a few ounces. I keep evaluating, optimizing, and customizing. The constraint drives me to find better ways to accomplish my objectives.

The key lesson here is that I constrained myself voluntarily. It wasn’t a compromise or a burden.  Even with just a carry-on, I get things done, am fully clothed, and have good times. I never find myself yearning for my old shirt. Life is just as good or better than ever with just my carry-on.

Sure, I could choose to use a larger bag. There’s no reason I couldn’t carry a big suitcase with lots of stuff. The carry-on bag constraint is arbitrary, but it has forced me to make beneficial changes.

Isn’t it time to rethink your baggage? Isn’t it time to let go of some of those old ideas? Isn’t it time to do better?