Improve Your Problem Solving and Performance with Constraints

Written by Charles Ngo
Written by Charles Ngo

The Japanese carmakers were fighting for their survival after World War 2.
Everything was stacked against them.

  1. The demand for cars declined.
  2. The costs of production soared.
  3. The war devastated the Japanese economy. The carmakers couldn’t get access to capital to finance large batch orders.
  4. And finally, Japan’s a small island. Land’s expensive and they couldn’t afford to expand their warehouses.

Cash was a constraint.
Space was a constraint.
They had to come up with a solution that worked around their limitations.
Toyota came up with a solution called “Just in Time” manufacturing.
Normally carmakers forecast how many cars will be in demand, manufactures them, and then stores the cars in warehouses until they’re ordered.
Unfortunately, Toyota didn’t have the money for large batches of inventory, and they didn’t have the warehouse space to store them.
Their new strategy was to create everything on an “as needed” basis.
Production started right when the cars were ordered, manufactured within days, and then delivered. Everything was done “Just in Time.”
Cash and Space were constraints, but these limitations forced them to come up with better, and more creative solutions.
Toyota would’ve died if they tried competing with the same strategies that the American companies did.
We hate constraints.

How many times have you wished you had more resources? What could you do if you had more time, money, and options?
I’ve realized that we all actually have too many choices, and it’s affecting our performances. Too many choices led to the fear of making the wrong decisions.
It leads to analysis paralysis. It’s called the paradox of choice.
Instead of looking at constraints as being restrictive to your growth, I want you to look at the upsides of limits.
In fact, I’m starting to add more constraints to my life on purpose.
Constraints force you to become more creative. You start pushing your problem-solving abilities.
In this article, I’m going to share different stories on how people used constraints to improve their performance.
I’ll also share some practical ideas on how you can use constraints in your own life.
You’ll be able to see that less is more, and you already have all the resources that you need.

Photo credit: Snapwire via

Using Constraints to Improve at Brazilian Jiujitsu

A few years ago, I watched a video on how a black belt improved at Brazilian Jiujitsu.
It should be simple: You follow what your coach says, and you train hard with other black belts.
But he didn’t have those options anymore. He just launched a new BJJ academy and didn’t have a coach. A new school meant no black belt level partners.
He had to think creatively on how he could improve.
If he just went 100% full power at his new students, that’d be like beating a video game over and over again on easy mode.
His solution was to make each roll more challenging by adding in constraints.
Some ideas included:

  • Normally, you’d start each round of sparring in a neutral position. He’d start each round in a disadvantaged situation.
  • He’d let his opponent work their best moves on him, AKA he’d let them use their A-game.
  • He’d do “marathon rolls.” He’d go round after round against other people without taking any breaks, while they were coming in fresh.
  • No hands. He’d practice his defensive skills by doing Jiujitsu using his legs only.

By creating these situations, his Jiujitsu actually improved as a result. They forced him to work on his weaknesses and develop a more well-rounded game.

Photo by Janko Ferlic from

How I Used Constraints to Learn Affiliate Marketing

Every marketing beginner faces the same issue: information overload. There’s no shortage of choice when it comes to business models, traffic sources, and campaigns to run.
I was upset at how few options I had back then. In hindsight, those constraints kept me laser-focused.
First, I only knew about two business models back then. I could either do affiliate marketing or SEO.
I didn’t know how to code.
YouTube barely existed back then.
The barriers to e-commerce were high.
Choosing affiliate marketing was easy. Doing SEO meant all my eggs were in the Google basket.
Second, I had a natural constraint on my traffic source. My day job was at an agency. I spent several hours a day inside of Google Adwords, so it made sense to stick to Adwords.
Then, my Google Adwords account got banned. Facebook naturally become my next option.
Another constraint was my $500 a month budget. I hated it and wished I had more budget to work with.
But that smaller budget made me overcompensate. I did market research and went through the market funnels. I asked the affiliate managers for every piece of information they knew about the offer.
Each dollar mattered.
I couldn’t afford to outsource. I had to learn the basics of programming and creating images by myself.
And finally, my limited budget meant I couldn’t do that many split tests. Each week I focused on one part of the campaign. One week I’d split test headlines, while another week I split test images.
These constraints meant I had to master each part of the split test.
The most important thing in affiliate marketing is launching.
It’s not refreshing Facebook groups all day.
It’s not joining another private forum.
It’s launching campaigns over and over. The constraints I had meant I wasn’t wasting time with bright shiny object syndrome.
It kept me focused on launching and testing.

Constraints Can Make Your Designs Iconic

I’m a fan of the angel investor, Naval Ravikant.
Over the past year, he started sharing some of his more famous quotes in visual form on Twitter. I researched more about the designer behind Visual Value and some of his philosophy.
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One thing that stood out to me is how much Jack embraces constraints. Each of his visuals has the following constraints:

  • They’re always in Black in White
  • They always use the same font
  • They always use a geometric shape.

How have these constraints benefited him?
First, his designs are iconic. I know Jack’s designs when I see it on Twitter. It’s kinda like how we know if a painting is by Piccaso even if we’ve never seen it before.
Next, he’s consistent. He creates a new design on a daily basis, and sometimes up to four a day.
He’s not wasting any decision energy thinking about what colors or fonts he should use. Choosing simplicity means he doesn’t need to invest time in learning the latest Photoshop software.
The constraints mean he can focus on communicating ideas and on extreme outputs.

How to Apply Constraints in Your Life

I’m always learning how to improve with different skills. Here’s how I’m using constraints.
1. Photography. I’m only using an iPhone to shoot, and I’m shooting photos of food. Using only an iPhone means I’m not wasting time on selecting tools. Food is an easy way to remind me to shoot. The only “lever” I’m using to improve my photographs is lighting.
Even though I’ve limited my scope, I’m going to be an overall better photographer for every situation.
2. Writing. I can be wordy with my articles. I’m adding in a word count limit to my posts. This word count forces me to communicate my ideas clearer, and become a better writer.
3. Business. I’m exploring different businesses right now. I’m giving each one a low, 5-figure budget.
A smaller budget means I have to be more strategic. I have to use Lean Startup Methods to validate my ideas. My constraints force me to do deep market and customer research.

Remove to Improve

Unlimited choices can lead to analysis paralysis.
Don’t look at constraints at being restrictive, but view them as a tool to improve your performance.
What area of your life can you add constraints?
Featured photo by Aleksandar Pasaric from Pexels.

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                The posts published by Charles are prepared and analyzed, including the author’s own experience…

The posts published by Charles are prepared and analyzed, including the author’s own experience…

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