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 (audiobook), 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

Constraints Accelerate Skill Development

It is common to complain about the constraints in our lives: too little time, not enough money, too small of a network, barely enough resources. Certainly, some of these constraints do hold us back. However, there is also a positive side. The constraints in our lives often force us to make choices and cultivate talents that would otherwise go undeveloped. Constraints drive creativity and foster skill development.

Just as the constraints of futsal forced Brazilian children to develop creativity and better ball handling skills, constraints can also drive your own skill development. In many ways, reaching the next level of performance is simply a matter of choosing the right constraints.

How to Choose the Right Constraints

From what I can tell, there are three primary steps to follow when using constraints to improve your skills.

1. Decide what specific skill you want to develop. The more specific the skill, the easier it will be to design a good constraint. For example, futsal didn’t help players develop the skill of being good at soccer. That’s too general. It helped them develop creative ball handling skills, which turned out to be valuable in the game of soccer.

Similarly, you shouldn’t try to develop the skill of being “good at marketing”, for example. It’s too broad. Instead, focus on learning how to write compelling headlines or analyze website data—something specific and tangible.

2. Design a constraint that requires this specific skill to be used. There are three main options for designing a constraint: time, resources, and environment.

  1. Time: Give yourself less time to accomplish a task or set a schedule that forces you to work on a skill more consistently.
  2. Resources: Give yourself fewer resources (or different resources) to do a task.
  3. Environment: According to one study, if you eat on 10-inch plates rather than 12-inch plates, you’ll consume 22 percent fewer calories over the course of a year. (More on this idea and other nutrition improvements here.) One simple change in environment can lead to significant results. In my opinion, environmental constraints are best because they impact your behavior without you realizing it.

3. Play the game. Constraints can accelerate skill development, but they aren’t a magic pill. You still need to put in your time. The greatest Brazilian soccer players were still playing futsal all the time. The best plan is useless without repeated action. What matters most is getting your reps in.

The Idea in Practice

I am currently experimenting with different constraints to boost my skills in certain areas. Here are a few skills I have been working to develop and the constraints I am placing on myself to make them happen:

Writing skills. I want to be a better writer, so I set a schedule where I have to publish a new article every Monday and Thursday. The schedule is my constraint. It doesn’t matter how good or how bad the article is. It doesn’t matter how long or how short it is. I have to get something out every Monday and Thursday. This forces me to be creative and to do the one thing that good writers do: write. I don’t always hit the mark, but I have stuck with this schedule for two years and I’ve written over 200,000 words.

Storytelling skills. I have some friends who are amazing storytellers. I’ve never been great at it, but I’d like to get better. The constraint I’ve placed on myself is scheduling talks without the use of slides. My last five speaking engagements have used no slides or a few basic images. Without text to rely on, I have designed a constraint that forces me to tell better stories so that I don’t embarrass myself in front of the audience.

Strength skills. I only lift three days per week. To someone who doesn’t workout, this might sound like a lot. However, many strength athletes train four to six days per week, sometimes twice per day. With restricted training time, I have to be very deliberate with my workouts if I want to make progress. Right now, I’m prioritizing foundational strength over all else. I’ll move on to in-depth technique development once my strength levels are higher.

What do you want to become great at? What skills do you want to develop? Most important, what constraints can you place upon yourself to get there?3

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Footnotes
  1. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

  2. Wikipedia entry on Futsal.

  3. Thanks to many readers for suggesting that I read The Talent Code. I love getting reading suggestions from you and, as always, I appreciate you holding me to a high standard in my work. Thanks for reading!