What is a constraint?

  • a limit
  • a boundary
  • a rule
  • a fence or corral

We all have constrained imposed upon us by facts of physics, biology, and ecology or set by our culture or even by unique personal features. But here we are discussing the usefulness of voluntarily setting constraints in our fitness and health activities. Constraints are actually vital components that help all kinds of systems (including human bodies and teams of people) function at their best. Constraints help direct your energy, attention, and effort. A good arrangement of voluntary constraints can help your efficiency and creativity, or push you to develop a strength or skill that is lagging behind the rest. 

You can set constraints around…

  • What you will do (or won’t do)
  • How you will do it
  • How much or how often you will do it
  • When you will do it

A constraint could be stated in the positive (which has a lot of advantages) or in the negative, whichever works better to remove options that are mostly a distraction or opposed to your goal and values. 

For example, you would be using a developmental constraint if you chose to not use your dominant hand or blindfold yourself for the day – your body would become aware in new ways, and it would learn or strengthen other pathways for getting things done. In the gym, you would experience a strength and/or skill-building constraint when a trainer or therapist put a band around your knees or had you do an action on one leg or on an unstable surface. 

Photo by Andreea Boncota on Unsplash

In an example of my own, for 8 years now I have voluntarily embraced a mostly plant-based whole-food diet (basically, a vegetarian with very occasional fish). Among many benefits, I appreciate how it eliminates a lot of options in the market or on the menu that have tempting liabilities I want to avoid.  This large reduction in options makes it easier for me to consistently choose foods that are closer to my target. More specifically, there are four constraints on my food choices that create a nice puzzle for me as an endurance athlete :

  1. plant-based, whole foods (closer to their natural or more easily digested form)
  2. nutritional density (more good stuff per calorie)
  3. macro-nutrient diversity (enough of one, not too much of another)
  4. low metabolic stress (easier on the digestive system, low glycemic, low inflammatory, etc)

This forces me to think and to learn about solutions within these boundaries, to be sensitive to my body and even consider if and how I may need to negotiate with my constraints when I run into conflicts. Hence, I do eat fish occasionally, for which I don’t need to feel judged. This is voluntary, after all, and my goal is aligned with my values. 

If there are too many constraints or they are too tight then with too few options available you may likely run into conflicts within sub-goal or between your values, or your attitude around the project may deteriorate. 

If there are too few constraints or they are too loose then you may more easily get off-track from your goal or waste a lot of time or resources doing things that don’t contribute well, or worse, work against it. 

Well-chosen constraints help you narrow down the number of options and choices that would otherwise overwhelm your thinking or willpower.  They create a functional space of information and choice that you can manage while still being nicely challenged. When you have your goal, your values clearly identified and aligned with it, and a learning mindset then when it comes time to negotiate with those boundaries you do so in a spirit of wisdom rather than out of weakness or fear.


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