The freedom of constraint


I can’t think inside my house.

Am I alone in this? Does anyone else feel their cognitive ability leak out of their ears the moment they cross the threshold?

When I walk through the door I’m immediately assaulted by a rush of unrelated details clamoring for my attention. DISHES! CRAP TO TAKE TO GOODWILL! MAIL TO OPEN! DINNER TO BE COOKED! It’s like my house is surrounded by a brain-disruption field. I want to turn around and run away.

I’ve already pegged part of the problem to my extroverted nature — I’m much better among people than alone — but that doesn’t explain everything.

The things tugging my sleeve insisting I take care of them aren’t even my children.

I used to chalk up my stunted attention span and tendency toward distraction to my kids’ interruptions, but I can’t even blame them anymore. While they’re at school, I’m home, flitting unproductively between writing, cleaning up, thinking about stuff, running errands, fretting over stuff I’ve forgotten to do, doing household stuff, making phone calls, and haunting social media procrastinating.

But: Get me on a plane, in a car, in a cafe, or in a new place, and my mental course straightens almost immediately. The idea for Parent Hacks was born in a cafe in Amsterdam. My best brainstorming happens on the plane ride back from vacation or a conference. This post is being written in a Portland coffeehouse.

When geography imposes a limit on my mind’s ability to wander, my brain gets to work.

Constraints inspire creativity.

When you can’t do anything you want, you focus on what you can do, which increases the likelihood you’ll do it well.

I’m thinking about how to apply this particular discovery to my life. Do more work in coffeehouses, perhaps. Travel more, if I can. Follow a budget. Impose a few dietary restrictions, just to see how I feel. Turn off wi-fi. Remember that setting limits with my kids helps them strengthen problem-solving skills.

Read Part 2 of this post here.

This post first appeared on my Babble Voices blog, The Accidental Expert, in 2012.

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash