Constraints aren’t always a bad thing.
When solving problems in engineering and mathematics, sometimes there are too many unknowns to come up with a solution.
I used to work on artificial heart valves and if you wanted to analyze how blood flowed through one of the vessels you stuck the heart valve in, you would have to know many variables: the sizes of the vessel and valve, speed of the blood, its properties (temperature, number of cells) and on and on.
But if all these things are changing continuously or if I start adding in random drugs into a person’s body to change how their blood is made up, it makes it IMPOSSIBLE to solve the problem. There are too many degrees of freedom, or ways in which something can change.
It’s the same with your life: you need to set constraints to be able to progress. Constraints also help to kill your stress and anxiety.
If you’re trying to build a business or focus on your health (define those things as “the problem”), yet you keep moving around, having to find new friends, develop new routines, find out where all the best places to eat are (variables)… You’re never going to be able to focus or solve “the problem”.
It seems like we all want to be able to WHATEVER we want WHENEVER we want. No rules. Anarchy. I’ll do what I feel like when I feel like it. That’s the ticket.
But that’s a dangerous trap.
I thought I wanted this but when I started having too much freedom I wasn’t happy. I like routine. I like structure. I get things done, know I’m working a certain amount, and then can leave my work and enjoy my night (…usually, sometimes work still bites in with ideas I need to hurry and write down *sigh*).
I’m a Type-A personality, but even my more laissez-faire friends agree: routine is necessary, otherwise things won’t get done.
You might guess that even as a digital nomad that can go anywhere, with that last sentence, I’m going to be staying in my current city of Chiang Mai for a while. Moving around is ruining my health and I can’t even make a new course or write a new book. Things keep changing so my anxiety skyrockets and I can’t get anything done.
It’s why I’ve decided to put on my big boy pants and commit to the city for at least half a year… and maybe get over some avoidant and commitment issues in the process :p.
In this article I’ll use the blueprint of how most engineering problems are solved, and explain what “variables” in life you have and how to solve the 3 most important “equations” (or pillars) you have: health, wealth, and relationships. I’ll talk achieving that all important the feeling of stability (while balancing freedom) and how, if you don’t, you’ll always be fighting and uphill battle. I’ll also give you some tools you can use to help you curb your anxiety, including: techniques for fighting worry, how you can use your money to DRASTICALLY reduce your stress (and no, not by buying fancy toys), and also the importance of setting up routines.
This is a more logical step-by-step process of figuring out what might be stressing you out, and finding ways to feel more at ease.
By the end of this article, you should be able to identify potential problem areas affecting your pillars, and possible solutions you can apply.
Let’s get into it.
The Steps You Need To Solve Your “Problem”
In engineering problems, you proceed as follows:
Define the equations that represent the system.
Examine what variables can change.
Define the constraints on the system, controlling the degrees of freedom.
Looking if you have too many unknowns for a given set of boundary conditions, constraints, and equations.
Are there any common “tricks” to know that can help solve the problem?
Moving forward with the solution.
Now let’s apply them to your life.
Steps #1 and 2: “Equations” of the system and the variables that can change
In engineering, equations would be things like Newton’s Laws of Motion – how does an object move in space and time?
For life, let’s simplify things EXTREMELY and assume you, your state, and your happiness are governed by three “pillars”:
Each of these pillars are made up of certain components, or variables. RELAX AND DON’T GET SCARED – I’m not going to test you on the equations, it’s just a neat way to think of everything. We could simplify them as:
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Certain variables have a +/- symbol because they could easily detract from you (e.g. example eating McDonald’s everyday is not going to be good for your health). Others might not be NECESSARY for your happiness and livelihood, but they sure do add a lot (e.g. example new friends and social experiences). Some variables might transfer over from one pillar to another (e.g. a good relationship with your family and significant other can lead to better mental health).
To all the math geeks reading this the point isn’t to actually determine the equations to model these (though I’m sure there are tons papers that try, like this one). The point is to break down life into some functions and variables so that we can see what goes into it, and how to make ourselves happier and less anxious.
The Importance Of Stability In Your Life
Speaking of anxiety, you’ll notice there’s this ominous thing called stability (Θ) I’ve included. This, I believe, affects EVERYTHING in your life. Perhaps not equally as I have put it into the equation (again, give me a break math geeks, I’m trying my best here :p), but the point is that if you don’t feel stable or secure, your entire life will be affected. Stability could be defined like this:
Stability = a function of consistent pay/having enough to live and job security, good social support, well established routines, knowledge of having home/not feeling like you are wavering all the time, and feeling that you have a direction in life (even if it might change).
Stability increases as its inputs vary less, and also becomes NEGATIVE on your pillars if nothing is stable at all. E.g. if you have no set direction in life, you constantly move, and you don’t have many friends… you won’t feel very stable.
Stress is also going to be an inverse function of stability, where less stability gives you more stress.
All of these items form the pyramid in Maslow’s heirachy of needs. which show how needs build on top of each other, with the most fundamental (breathing, food, water, etc.) being necessary for anything of higher order (self-esteem, confidence, creativity).
Learn more below:
So you found that you could “determine” your overall life quotient by how much you fill in your health, wealth, and relationships equations. You could also determine your level of anxiety via your stability, and if your stability is low, you can’t really be happy in any area… you’ll feel like your life is constantly off kilter.
OK, so how do you maximize these equations? How do you make them as large as possible? We want health, wealth, relationships, and stability to be at an all time high.
Step #3: Set “constraints” in your life and control your degrees of freedom
The more variance you have in your life, the more freedom you have. But with freedom comes potential anxiety and stress, i.e., stability might go down. If I’d like to be able to move wherever I want, that’s great, but then I take a chance of losing my home at any minute, not “feeling” like I have a home town, I might have to constantly find a new social support system, and so on.
If I commit to being somewhere for a few months, I feel more grounded, but I also feel a bit trapped and stagnant. There’s a small trade off.
Of course sometimes not having constraints is great, like when you’re on vacation. In fact, sometimes those that suffer from anxiety put too many constraints on themselves, with limiting beliefs and not believing in themselves, in terms of what they can accomplish. They put an artificial ceiling over the amount they can grow. You need to learn the proper tools to get over this if you think it’s an issue.
But that’s why it’s “constraints” in quotations. I don’t want you to set limits on how far you can go or what you can go in life. I want you to set constraints on things so you can focus and grow where you want, so there’s not too much distracting you and making you feel anxious or shitty.
I don’t want you to feel suffocated, but I don’t want you to feel like there’s so much unknown that all you feel is a gnawing sense of anxiety and duress in your stomach (hello what I’ve felt for a while).
The best scenario is to create a life where you are volunteering to stay in a certain state for a while (job, living place, etc.), but can change whenever you want or need to. True freedom of choice, but a consistency that lets you propel forward.
So, what are some items you can possibly use as constraints to control your degrees of freedom? How do we increase stability?
Where you live/your home – Yes it’s cool to run from apartment to apartment, exploring new parts of the city. But most of us are homebodies in the sense that it feels great to have the same house to come home to again and again. It gets charged with a relaxing energy. We can fill it with things we like. When this doesn’t exist or it keeps changing, you’ll constantly feel like you’re in a state of flux and anxiety.
Whom your friends are (your close social circle) – I’m not saying you should NEVER make new friends… that’s kind of against one of the things I highly recommend over and over: making new connections. But, what I am saying is that you should pick your top 3-5 friends who are your “ride or die” crew. They’ll always be there for you, no matter what. This solid support system will give you the grounded energy you need to take risks in other places.
Your job – No job = no money = no stability. Sure, you can work towards building your own business on the side or looking for something new. But, if you have issues with anxiety, not having a job or a consistent stream of income will kill you with stress.
Daily routine, days you go to the gym, and so on – No routine = no consistent work done. No consistent work done = how can you measure what’s going on? No work done = feeling like you aren’t going anywhere in life. I agree that number of hours is a vanity metric – just because you spend 40 hours at work a week doesn’t mean you’re doing useful stuff. But if your hours are all over the place, you’re not going to be moving forward. Sometimes you don’t FEEL like doing things but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. You should assign a set number of hours for work, or any other important tasks, and have priorities that need to get done. If the priorities get done, you can always leave work early (if you have that freedom) or move on to something else. It’s the same with the gym – yes, I could go to the gym 3 times a week and each time, just push against the wall and say I worked out. But if I just go when I feel like it and I only work out HARD when I’m super into it, I don’t have any structure or accountability, and I probably won’t move forward with my health.
Relationship (girlfriend/boyfriend) – I don’t believe in committing monogamously unless you are nearly 100% happy (you’ll never get EVERYTHING you want). But, having a healthy, stable relationship creates… stability. You obviously need to be with the right person, have gone up to and dated lots of people, and know what you’re looking for.
Consistently conversations and being with your family – My Dad said a few years ago that family is the most important thing you have, as they will always be with you, through thick and thin (hopefully, assuming you do have a good family). I’ve come to see that recently after having an incredibly bad stomach infection, and not being able to even leave my room. Though I still think good friends are ESSENTIAL and in some cases even more important than family, a good family provides support and stability. If you keep talking with your family, you’ll feel more grounded.
By setting these constraints you increase stability so that you can work on your health, wealth, and relationships, and everything feels better (you improve in all those areas as a byproduct).
Step #4: Are there too many unknowns for the system?
In engineering, you must have enough equations to solve for a given number of unknowns. If you have too many equations for the unknowns, you can have more than one solution. If you don’t have enough equations, you can’t get your unknowns.
We can’t be exact, e.g. “I have specified my girlfriend/boyfriend quotient and determined my stability number”, but hopefully you’ve set up enough constraints so you can focus.
If you feel like things are all over the place, perhaps you need to re-visit Step #3.
Do you have a routine and schedule down? Do you have a nice, permanent place to go home to? How stable do you feel at your job or do you even have ANY job stability?
Based on these answers, you might need to go back and set more constraints. Or you need to make some assumptions which leads to…
Step #5: Applying common tricks to help with anxiety and stress
I know most engineering professors won’t like this terminology, but there are a number of tricks that come up again and again in most problems that help you solve them. Whether they be equations, looking at the system for assumptions you can make and so on, students use them all the time.
With your mind, it’s not as clear cut. But there are tools, habits, and common questions you can ask that have been proven time and time again to help you get over a lot of your anxiety and mental stress.
Here are some of the top ones:
1. Use Dale Carnegie’s techniques from How To Stop Worrying And Start Living to solve worry problems – Define the worst case scenario and taking action
While I have my own tools to deal with worry, I am reading Dale Carnegie’s How To Stop Worrying And Start Living, after seeing it recommended countless times. I haven’t finished the book but I’d like to present two of his techniques:
The first, can be used when you’re constantly worrying about something. Typically the mind fears what it doesn’t know or what you’ve never experienced it before. But if you actually DEFINE it, then the ominous fear will mostly go away. There might still be a bit of fear, but it won’t be as bad. You then define how you will improve on the situation if it happens (how will you take action?).
For example: Say you are low on money. You keep worrying. You go on and on. You can’t sleep.
Worst case scenario – I go bankrupt. I have no money.
How can I improve on this worst case scenario? – I guess if I ran out of money I could work extra hours at my job if my boss was OK with it. If not, I would go find a second one, either with a company or freelancing. I could ask my family or friends for a temporary loan and explain the situation. I would feel embarrassed and wouldn’t be able to take any trips or make any really unnecessary purchases, but I could probably get out of the hole reasonably quickly.
Of course your exact scenario might differ, but the point is to define what will happen and what you can do.
Another technique that’s really helpful is analyzing your worries with four questions. While the above kind of blends them all together, this set of questions really breaks things down. Again – it’s the same pattern of actually defining what can happen, what you might be able to do, and what you will do (define scenarios, take action).
What am I worrying about?
What can I do about it? Are there multiple possibilities?
Here is what I am going to do about it – setting an action plan, dates, etc.
When am I going to start doing it?
Carnegie also says that once you make a decision, put all your energy into it and don’t look back. You’ll just drive yourself nuts if you keep being uncertain. Pick a path and accept whatever happens.
In this case, by handling worry problems and setting a definitive action plan, you set “constraints” by saying what you will do. E.g. you worry about your health so you will go to the gym 3 times a week. You are tired of moving around so you will sign a 3 month lease, and so on.
You can learn more about this amazing book by watching this short summary/review:
2. One of the “right” ways to use and earn money – to pay for comfort and minimize your stress
Forget the thought that money can buy toys. You should be over materialism and spending money on gadgets to make you happy. Happiness from a random gadget or something external won’t last forever and it’s a super poor way to build your life. (If you need some help with this, check out this article).
But what money can buy is experiences, and more specifically, it gives you the freedom of choice.
You can also use your hard earned money to apply constraints and if you feel too stressed.
If you arrive in a town and your booked hotel is cancelled, with money, you can just walk in to a new one and even pay a premium if they charge it for same day booking. Constraint (I know where I am living) set.
Instead of rushing trying to get the cooking done and go to the gym, or instead of wondering where you’ll eat everyday you can just order in a healthy meal from the same restaurant. Constraint (I know I have food and where to get it) set.
Money doesn’t bring absolute happiness. But, money can be an essential tool in reducing stress, lowering anxiety, and freeing up time to do more important things – making you happier.
Some people are comfortable, for example, putting all their money and time into a business with nothing else coming in and accepting bankruptcy – I’m not.
Some people are OK arriving in a city trying to find the cheapest deal on a hotel versus booking in advance and potentially getting charged more as a tourist – I’m not, and maybe you aren’t either. I’d rather pay extra if it means I don’t have to stress on my trip, I know things are booked, and I can just show up and enjoy the city.
There’s a balance between allowing for randomness and things not to be super ordered and strangled for control versus having absolutely no plan.
Use your money to buy comfort and take stress off, and earn it to mitigate risk as well.
For example – After my condo lease ended, I had a month left in Vietnam before moving to Thailand. I could have searched for the best hotel deal to save some money. Or, I could move right back into the hotel I started off at when I went to the city, where I know it’s safe, close to everything, I love the staff, and the price isn’t SUPER expensive.
I used my money to set a constraint and focus on the bigger issues – feeling more secure and getting back to work.
3. The importance of setting up habits, routines, and rituals
One of the best ways to help lower your anxiety and stress is to have routines set up. You get up at the same time, follow a morning routine, go to the gym the same days a week…
It sounds like it might be boring, but the creation of routine and structure allows for genius to happen. You don’t concern yourself with trivial BS like where you eat breakfast, but instead, you use the limited decision energy and willpower you have to focus on creating an amazing book, or program, or piece of art.
“Genius and creativity take place within the borders of routine and structure. They allow genius and creativity to thrive.”
Don’t say “I’ll work when I want to”, have a set schedule or a really good system that makes your productivity skyrocket.
I wrote a lot about how decision fatigue, not having a set schedule, and working constantly can make you utterly depressed and unproductive in a guest post. You can check it out if you’d like to learn more.
Why You Need Some Constraints In Your Life (And The Last Step)
Having choice is great in life, and we usually think of choice as a good thing (where to live, whom to date, what job to have, waking up whenever we want). But, too much choice can hurt you. No structure leads to anxiety and not being able to fix yourself somewhere.
You want to determine and SET constraints, and if not constraints, some rough guidelines at least that can guide you. Otherwise, your brain won’t have any structure and it will be like a kid running all over the place.
Constraints can range from fixing where you live for a certain time, to setting up routines, rituals, and habits, to having a known work schedule.
It’s why on a Podcast interview, Lewis Howes talked with Tim Ferriss about how they loved going to strict boarding schools and football practices (that actually gave players AGENDAS at the beginning of practice). You knew when you had to study, go outside and run, and go to sleep. You could focus on the actual activity (getting fit, getting smart, and so on).
Create structure in your life, and keep going until you feel like you have a good routine and can focus. Keep your freedom: Establish in your mind that you can always leave your job. You can always date someone else. You can always move…
But without constraints, you will never progress.