The Freedom of the Box

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Most people long for more freedom. Yet self-imposed constraints, used wisely, can make us healthier, more productive and more creative.

Freedom Can be Overrated

“If you could do anything, what would you do?” It seems like a seductive question, one that would get the ball rolling at a cocktail party or perhaps open a deeper discussion of goals and ambitions. Yet in practice, I find this to be a conversation stopper. When faced with absolutely no constraints, many people stop dead in their tracks. Try it yourself and see if you don’t have at least a moment of disorientation or confusion. Similarly, faced with a truly unscheduled day, one with no requirements at all, I often find myself frittering away the time in one way or another.

Life, like games, is interesting because of the rules we play by. Some of these are rules imposed by nature, or by society, or by our own agreements with ourselves. While we often chafe against external rules, and wish we didn’t have to always obey them, knowing how to set internal rules, the ones we make and keep ourselves, is an essential, if under-taught skill.

Rules are Decisions Made in Advance

In the real world, complexity is rampant. There is always a near-infinity of actions we could take at any given moment, and having to think about all of them all of the time would be paralyzing, not to mention exhausting. By setting rules or standards for ourselves, we remove some or all of that complexity and give our decision-making facility a well-needed break.

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Some of these rules are so simple they are easily overlooked. Do you have a favorite brand of cereal, one you always get? Then it becomes a rule of a sort. You no longer have to look at the entire supermarket aisle of breakfast food to decide what you’re buying and eating for breakfast tomorrow. When considering a large purchase, “Can I afford it?” is a question fraught with both complexity and emotional intensity. But if a budget has been set in advance, the question becomes much easier. Does this purchase fit within the budget or not? That is a far easier question to answer.

Time Box for Better Performance

The rules we make for our own productivity also affect us in profound ways. Most of the time we task ourselves with a fixed amount of work to do, and it takes as long as it takes. Sometimes this is the right answer. But there are problems with fixed-work, variable-time games. First, with no deadline at all, work tends to be postponed indefinitely. Adding a deadline can help, but one of two things will happen. If the deadline is too generous, then (as Parkinson’s Law famously states) “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Alternately, if too little time is granted, then stress results as we try to get everything done when there just isn’t time for everything.

Changing the rules at this point can help. A “time box” is a fixed-time, variable-work game. By letting go of the requirement to get “everything” done, the question becomes “how much can we get done?” The situation then looks more like a challenge than a sentence. Time boxes are especially valuable for perfectionists because it forces them to finish.

Under the time box condition, attention turns to priorities. What is most essential? Do that first. Then do the next-most important, and so on. And the amazing thing is that often people are able to do more when they’re forced to finish, but not forced to finish everything.

What if You Had to…

Knowing what is possible is a difficult problem, but you can route around it by simply assuming not only possibility, but necessity. The ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tsu wrote that military leaders should burn their boats behind them to cut off the chance for retreat. When the only options are victory or death, the army draws on all its resources to find the only way out.

Much less dramatically, it can help to imagine what you would do if you had to accomplish something. What if you had to find a job in three weeks or what if you had to run a half-marathon in six months? How would you approach it? By taking away the questions “Do I want this?” and “Can I do it?”, you’ve freed up mental space to get on with the “how” of the matter.

For many of us, our minds draw us to the darkest alternatives and most dire threats possible in our lives. When it becomes crippling, we call that anxiety and treat it as a mental disorder. Yet, thinking about worst-case scenarios can be useful but only if we complete the thought. Usually the anxiety-producing thought is of the form “Something awful will happen and I’ll die or go crazy if it does.” What if we make a rule that you don’t die (at least immediately) and you don’t go crazy, then what would you do to cope with the situation? For almost any scenario, there’s something to be done to make it at least a little better. Playing the scenario out in advance not only yields a plan, but perhaps also the confidence to deal with what at first seemed an unbearable blow.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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