Hemingway’s Lessons on Constraints and How They Fuel Productivity

Home Productivity Hemingway’s Lessons on Constraints and How They Fuel Productivity

Hemingway’s Lessons on Constraints and How They Fuel Productivity

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Ernest Hemingway is famous for his influence on 20th-century fiction. He published a tremendous volume of work that became classics in American literature.

But Hemingway was much more than a writer. “Papa,” as he was lovingly called, possessed remarkable skills when it came to the great outdoors, one of which was marksmanship.

Hemingway could take down a black bear in a single shot. He could shoot a large bull elk through the lungs, on the run, at a hundred yards. A companion astonished at Hemingway’s skills said,

“I saw Ernest jump from his horse, cover a hundred-yard dash on foot, and drop a running antelope at 275 yards. That’s rifle shooting, if you ask me.”

What made him so remarkable? One reason is that Hemingway learned how to shoot from a very young age. By the time he was two and a half, he had learned the basics of shooting a gun, and by the time he was four, he could handle a pistol.

You could say practice made Hemingway remarkable. But more than the number of years, it was the quality of practice that yielded such amazing results.

You see, once Hemingway grew older, his father would give him only three shotgun shells for an entire day of hunting. This forced Hemingway to take a shot only when he was sure, which, in turn, improved his angling instincts and marksmanship[1]Thanks to Brett McKay’s article Ernest Hemingway as a Case Study in Living the T-Shaped Life.

Without this imposed constraint, Hemingway’s shots would probably have been all the place. This wouldn’t just waste bullets; it would also make him learn slowly, and he would not be half as good as he was.[2]Hemingway applied this concept of constraints in many areas of his life, including his writing. He was almost miserly with his words, making readers read between the lines. This aspect made them … Continue reading

A constrained life is a productive one

We often think that constraints limit our potential and stunt our growth, while a blank canvas gives us free rein to explore and fuels creativity.

But think about this. When have you done your best work?

Was it when a deadline loomed overhead? Or when you had an abundance of time? I’m guessing it’s the former. When you had more time on your hands, you probably struggled to bring yourself to work on the task.[3]Even when you completed the task, you probably weren’t satisfied because you knew you could’ve done better.

Why is that?

A tight deadline forces you to double down on what’s important and ignore the rest. Meanwhile, a distant deadline distracts you, seducing you into wasting time by jumping from one task to another.

The same holds true for your decisions. When you mindfully work on a few important activities, you have the mental bandwidth to make better decisions than if you mindlessly worked on myriad trivial ones. And your decisions impact your actions which, in turn, impact your life. Thus, each thoughtful decision is a step towards a better-designed, more productive life.

Here are a few examples of constraints in my life.

While writing, I strive to keep my articles below 1,100 words. This forces me to retain what’s important and remove everything else. Without the constraint, I would’ve tried to connect too many dots and ended up writing scattered pieces.

While working, I focus for 45 minutes followed by 15 minutes of rest. I follow this format for no more than six sessions each day. This constraint forces me to block out distractions and pay attention to important tasks that move the needle. Plus, resting reduces my stress levels and helps me maintain my mental health.

At the gym, I set a 45-minute time limit to complete my exercises, which means I have to make every minute count. It also means that when I lift heavier weights in the same time limit, I grow stronger and fitter.

Rather than going through the motions, apply constraints in your life. Be deliberate about your thoughts and actions. The less you do, the more you can focus, the more productive you become, and the more you improve at what’s important.

References

References
1 Thanks to Brett McKay’s article Ernest Hemingway as a Case Study in Living the T-Shaped Life
2 Hemingway applied this concept of constraints in many areas of his life, including his writing. He was almost miserly with his words, making readers read between the lines. This aspect made them enjoy his stories and articles even more.
3 Even when you completed the task, you probably weren’t satisfied because you knew you could’ve done better.

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