How Constraints Make You Better: Why the Right Limitations Boost Performance

In 1930, a 23-year-old teacher in Uruguay named Juan Carlos Ceriani created a new sport. Ceriani wanted to design a game that was similar to soccer, but that his students could play indoors throughout the year. His new game became known as futsal.

Futsal is very similar to soccer, but it has a few important differences. First, it is played in a much smaller area. (Ceriani designed the game so that it could be played on YMCA basketball courts.) Second, the ball is smaller and has less bounce than a regular soccer ball. Third, there are only five players per side rather than the typical eleven players per side in a soccer match.

This combination of factors—a tighter playing environment and a less bouncy ball—requires futsal players to develop more creative ball skills because they are constantly playing in crowded spaces. Additionally, because there are fewer players, each person touches the ball much more than they would in a standard soccer match. In fact, according to research quoted by Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code, futsal players get 600 percent more touches during a typical game than soccer players do. [1]

Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, futsal migrated from Uruguay to Brazil, where the Brazilians fell in love with the new game. (Even today, over 75 years later, more people play futsal in Brazil than soccer.) It’s hard to say why futsal became so popular in Brazil, but one thing is for sure: the young Brazilians who grew up playing futsal throughout the 1940s and 1950s developed incredible ball handling and technical skills.

Eventually, these children grew into adults and made the transition from futsal to soccer. The athletic creativity they developed in those futsal games would help the Brazilians to shine on the world stage. During the 12-year span from 1958 to 1970, there were four World Cup championships. Brazil won three of them. [2]
[click to continue reading…]

To Make Big Gains, Avoid Tiny Losses

In many cases, improvement is not about doing more things right, but about doing less things wrong.

To understand what I mean, we need to take a trip to Japan.

The Curious Case of Japanese Television Sets

In the decades that followed World War II, the manufacturing industry in America thrived. For years, American companies grew in size and profitability—even though they produced many products of average quality.

This gravy train began to slide off the tracks in the 1970s. Japanese firms implemented a series of surprising changes that helped them crush their American counterparts. As one New Yorker article put it…

“Japanese firms emphasized what came to be known as “lean production,” relentlessly looking to remove waste of all kinds from the production process, down to redesigning workspaces, so workers didn’t have to waste time twisting and turning to reach their tools. The result was that Japanese factories were more efficient and Japanese products were more reliable than American ones. In 1974, service calls for American-made color televisions were five times as common as for Japanese televisions. By 1979, it took American workers three times as long to assemble their sets.” [1]

Business buzzwords like Kaizen, Lean Production, and Process Improvement are so ubiquitous today that it can be easy to gloss over the subtlety of the Japanese strategy.

The key insight I’d like to point out here is the difference between focusing on getting better vs. not getting worse. Japanese television makers did not seek out more intelligent workers or better materials, they simply said, “Let’s build the same product, but make fewer mistakes.” Japanese companies improved by subtracting the things that didn’t work, not by creating a bigger, better, or more expansive product.

This is an important distinction and it applies to habits, processes, and goals of all kinds, not just television sets.

Two Paths to Improvement

The distinction we are making here is between improvement by addition vs. improvement by subtraction. Improvement by addition is focused on doing more of what does work: producing a faster car, creating a more powerful speaker, building a stronger table. Improvement by subtraction is focused on doing less of what doesn’t work: eliminating mistakes, reducing complexity, and stripping away the inessential.

These concepts of addition and subtraction apply to many areas of life.

Education

  • Addition: become more intelligent, increase your IQ.
  • Subtraction: avoid stupid mistakes, make fewer mental errors.

Investing

  • Addition: earn more money, seek growth opportunities.
  • Subtraction: never lose money, limit your risk.

Web Design

  • Addition: improve your call-to-action copy, boost conversions.
  • Subtraction: remove the on page elements that distract visitors.

Baseball

  • Addition: get more hits.
  • Subtraction: make fewer outs.

Exercise

  • Addition: make your workouts more intense.
  • Subtraction: miss fewer workouts.

Nutrition

  • Addition: follow a new diet of healthy foods.
  • Subtraction: eat fewer unhealthy foods.

Many of these approaches seem similar, but they are not the same. Take the nutrition example above. Eating healthy foods and avoiding unhealthy foods seems very similar. However, in the first case, your focus is on “how to eat better” whereas the second case is focused on “how to not eat worse.” In one scenario you are trying to chase the upside, in another you are focused on limiting the downside.

improvement curves

Improvement by Subtraction

Nearly every manager in the world wants to “do more great work”, but very few people want to “do less bad work.” We love peak performances. Every athlete wants to play an amazing game. Every business owner wants to land a blockbuster sale. Every writer wants to launch a best-selling book. Our desire for that next level of performance causes us to disproportionately focus on the front end of the curve.

Eliminating mistakes is an underappreciated way to improve. In the real world, it is often easier to improve your performance by cutting the downside rather than capturing the upside. Subtraction is more practical than addition. This is true for two reasons.

First, it is often easier to eliminate errors than it is to master peak performance. By simply writing down every step of a process, you can often identify a few areas that can be reduced or eliminated all together. The easiest improvements I have made to my website were a result of eliminating every inessential element.

Second, improvement by subtraction does not require you to achieve a new level of performance. This method is about doing what you are capable of doing more frequently. It is about reducing the likelihood that you’ll perform below your ability.

One of the best ways to make big gains is to avoid tiny losses.

Click here to leave a comment.

Sources

  1. Better All the Time” by James Surowiecki. November 10, 2014.

Thanks to readers Jim and Andrius for recommending the New Yorker article and to Shane Parrish for priming my thoughts on this topic by writing about why “avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.”

Time Assets vs. Time Debts: A Different Way of Thinking About Productivity

Late in his career, Steve Jobs famously drove his car without a license plate.

There were all sorts of theories about why Jobs decided to drive without tags. Some people said he didn’t want to be tracked. Others believed he was trying to make a game of avoiding parking tickets. Jon Callas, a former computer security expert who worked for Apple, revealed a different reason.

According to Callas, Steve Jobs discovered a loophole in the California vehicle registration laws. Anyone with a new car had up to six months to get a proper license plate for their new vehicle. During the first six months, however, you could simply drive the vehicle without a license plate.

Once he realized this, Jobs arranged a special leasing agreement with his Mercedes dealer so that every six months he would drop off his current car and receive a new Mercedes SL55 AMG to replace it. This meant that he never drove a car older than six months and he never had to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a license plate. [1]

After hearing the story, many people responded by saying something like, “I guess that’s what you do when you have a lot of money.” And, to be fair, it is true that this license plate strategy isn’t reasonable for most people on the planet. If you look deeper, however, you’ll notice that something else was happening: Steve Jobs was building a Time Asset.
[click to continue reading…]

10 Lessons Learned from Squatting 400 Pounds

Last week, I set a new personal record by squatting 405 pounds (184 kilograms).

If you’re interested, here is a short video of the lift…

I have plenty of friends who can squat more weight—and a few who regularly squat over 500 pounds—but this was my first time passing the 400-pound mark so I’d like to share a few lessons I learned along the way.
[click to continue reading…]

Martha Graham on the Hidden Danger of Comparing Yourself to Others

Agnes de Mille had just achieved the greatest success of her career, but right now the only thing she felt was confusion.

She was a dancer and a choreographer. Early in her career, de Mille had created the choreography for a ballet called Three Virgins and a Devil. She thought it was good work, but nobody made much of it.

A few years later, de Mille choreographed a ballet named Rodeo. Again, she thought her work was solid, but it resulted in little commercial fame.

Agnes de Mille
Agnes de Mille in her outfit for Rodeo. (Photograph by Maurice Seymour. Courtesy of Ronald Seymour/Maurice Seymour Archive.)

Then, in 1943, de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, a musical show from Rodgers and Hammerstein that enjoyed nearly instant success. In the coming years, Oklahoma! would run for an incredible 2,212 performances, both around the nation and abroad. In 1955, the film version won an Academy Award.

But the success of Oklahoma! confused her. She thought that her work on Oklahoma! was only average compared to some of her other creations. She later said, “After the opening of Oklahoma!, I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha.”

Martha was Martha Graham, perhaps the most influential dance choreographer of the 20th century. (Although not as well-known by the general public, Graham has been compared to other creative geniuses like Picasso or Frank Lloyd Wright.)

During their conversation, de Mille told Martha Graham about her frustration. “I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.” [1]

Graham responded by saying,

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

[click to continue reading…]

How Experts Practice Better Than the Rest

My dad and I were standing in the front yard. Maybe that’s why I remember it. We typically practiced baseball in the backyard, but for some reason we were out front that day. I was around 9 years old and learning how to pitch. My dad was walking me through the basic mechanics.

On this particular day, we were working on the backswing of my arm. The ball came out of the pocket of my glove, my elbow went up, and my arm began to swing back behind me in preparation to throw.

“Elbow up.” That was the cue. “Elbow up. Elbow up. Elbow up.”

We spent that whole session focused on one little movement of 12 inches or so when my hands parted and the backswing started. We probably repeated it hundreds of times that day. Sometimes with full throws, but mostly with drills and little practice patterns.

“Elbow up.”

We kept working on this for a few days and then, at some point, we stopped talking about getting my elbow up and moved on to the next phase of the pitching motion. It wasn’t until weeks later, when I realized we hadn’t said “Elbow up” in awhile, that I noticed that I was getting into the right position automatically.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was one of my first exposures to the concept of deliberate practice.
[click to continue reading…]

Minimalism, Success, and the Curious Writing Habit of George R.R. Martin

In 1971, a young writer graduated with his Masters degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. He spent the first 13 years of his career writing professionally and made a living from it, but without major success. In 1983, he released his fourth book, The Armageddon Rag.

Nobody read it—the book was a total flop. In the author’s own words, “It essentially destroyed my career as a novelist at the time.” [1, 2]

But he was determined and so he found ways to keep writing. He landed a job writing a television script for CBS. Soon after, the show was cancelled. He managed to work his way onto another TV series, this time on ABC, but it was cancelled again. In 1991, after nearly a decade of bouncing around, he decided to start writing fiction again.

Two million words later, George R.R. Martin was famous.

Martin is the best-selling author of the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. The first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, has also been turned into a blockbuster television series on HBO. (The first season of the show was nominated for 13 Emmy awards.) [3] The epic 7-part series that hasn’t even been finished (Martin is currently working on the sixth book), but it has already sold more than 25 million copies.

What is most surprising isn’t how good the books are, but how, exactly, Martin writes his best-selling works…
[click to continue reading…]

Hacking the Workout Journal: How to Track Your Workouts in the Simplest, Most Effective Way Possible

Today I’m going to share my system for recording my workouts.

In my opinion, tracking your workouts (whether it be with a workout journal, a fitness app, or something else) should accomplish 3 goals…

  1. It should be quick and easy, so that you can spend your time exercising. Your time should be spent doing the work, not recording it.
  2. It should be useful. Our modern world is overflowing with data and most of it is never acted upon. I prefer a system that records the essential information of what I have done (so I can see my progress), that reduces errors while I am working out (so that I can be more effective with my time), and that helps me make informed decisions about what to do during my next workout.
  3. It should be versatile. I don’t want to have to find a new app or develop a new system every time I want to do a different style of workout. I should be able to adapt my current system to any style of training.

With those goals in mind, here’s the workout journal tracking system that has worked best for me.
[click to continue reading…]

Sisu: How to Develop Mental Toughness in the Face of Adversity

Without warning, Soviet Union planes came roaring over the city of Helsinki, Finland on November 30, 1939. Finland was about to receive a violent shove into World War II.

The Soviets dropped more than 350 bombs during the raid. Innocent civilians died. Entire buildings were turned to dust. And it was just the beginning. Three hours before the air strike, more than 450,000 Soviet soldiers began marching across the Finnish border. The Soviet soldiers outnumbered the Finnish army almost 3-to-1. That wasn’t the worst of it. The Soviets also commanded more than 6,000 armored tanks and almost 4,000 aircraft. Finland, meanwhile, had just 32 tanks and 114 aircraft. [1]

It was the beginning of what became known as the Winter War. For the Finns, there was no question whether some of them would die. The question was whether any of them would survive.
[click to continue reading…]

Warren Buffett’s “2 List” Strategy: How to Maximize Your Focus and Master Your Priorities

With well over 50 billion dollars to his name, Warren Buffett is consistently ranked among the wealthiest people in the world. Out of all the investors in the 20th century, Buffett was the most successful.

Given his success, it stands to reason that Buffett has an excellent understanding of how to spend his time each day. From a monetary perspective, you could say that he manages his time better than anyone else.

And that’s why the story below, which was shared directly from Buffett’s employee to my good friend Scott Dinsmore, caught my attention.

Let’s talk about the simple 3-step productivity strategy that Warren Buffett uses to help his employees determine their priorities and actions.
[click to continue reading…]