Overwhelmed? Apply Temporary Constraints.


(Originally written April 2017, Updated Oct 2019.)

Overwhelm happens when we have too many choices.

The next time you feel it, try this -- apply temporary constraints. 


  • Limit the tasks you must do to just 3. (Everything else is bonus.)
  • Limit the amount of time you work on something to 25 minutes.
  • Limit to 1 type of person you're speaking to in your marketing.

By temporarily limiting your options, you create relief from overwhelm, and more focus on the things that matter most. 

Let's explore a specific example:
What if I'm feeling overwhelmed with an upcoming course I am teaching... I have so many things I could teach, I’m not even sure where to start?

Apply a temporary constraint:

"If I could only teach 3 concepts or skills, what must I teach?"

As I write down the 3 things, I may even come up with more than 3, but at least by answering the question, I've gotten unstuck.

If I come up with too many ideas, I can further apply a constraint, and limit it to the 3
best things to teach.

This is applying a quantity constraint.

Another way to apply the quantity constraint is if you're overwhelmed with your to-do list.

You can ask:

"If I can only accomplish 3 things today, what must those 3 things be?"

Then get to work on just those 3 things... one step at a time.

Once you complete those 3 things, you can then ask the same question again, to bring focus to another 3 important tasks.

Another example:

In a presentation I'm giving, I'm feeling stuck about planning the beginning. Apply a temporary constraint:

"Since I only have 10 minutes to start the presentation well, what must those 10 minutes contain?"

This is applying a time constraint.

In your everyday work, if you find yourself procrastinating due to how big a project feels to you, then do this:

Set a 10 minute timer on your phone or use this site -- e.ggtimer.com/10minutes -- and simply take the next step in that project, whatever you know to do.

In terms of the big picture, I've even applied the time constraint to the topic of life purpose:

"If I had only 1 year left to do my best work, what would I most want to accomplish?"

I expect to live longer than that (I hope!) — but at least by answering the question, I've gotten more focused on my most important work.

A third way: quality constraints.

For example, if I am feeling overwhelmed about writing a marketing campaign, I can apply the quality constraint:

"If I was speaking to just 1 type of person — the most ideal person I serve in my business — what would I say to that specific person? What's 1 thing they most need to hear from me?"

If dealing with a difficult situation, a quality constraint might be:

"What would wisdom / courage / kindness do in this situation?" (pick one quality to ask yourself about.)

A whimsical example...

If I'm wondering how long this article should be... apply a constraint: what if I simply shared 3 examples? Since I've done more than that now, I will stop :)

The next time you are feeling overwhelmed, stuck, or procrastinating, pick one of these lenses and try it out...

  • Quantity constraint
  • Time constraint
  • Quality constraint

​...and experience more calm & focus in your work and life.

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Since 2009, George Kao has been training and coaching entrepreneurs to build authentic businesses that bring fulfillment, freedom, and contribution.