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Embracing Constraints

When we think about learning or really any effortful activity, it’s easy to assume that more freedom, time, and resources would naturally lead to better outcomes. But that’s not necessarily true.  Sometimes, artificial constraints can cause better outcomes.

The Magic of Limited Choices

Consider a young writer, Sophie, who is working on an essay on Of Mice and Men. She initially faces a blank page with countless ideas swirling in her head. When given the entire day to write, she struggles with where to start, what quotes to use, and how to advance her thesis. She often finds herself distracted or overwhelmed.

Now, what happens when we add some constraints?

Instead of an essay, it’s a timed-writing assignment. She has ninety minutes to write five paragraphs. Furthermore, she can pick from three prompts. To make matters even easier, the teacher gives her fifteen short quotes from the book to use in her analysis. Fewer decisions make the writing process easier. The artificial constraints fuel her focus. As the minutes tick away, her ideas crystallize into a coherent and persuasive essay. There’s less to decide and more to create. She finishes the essay with fifteen minutes to spare. After a few minutes of editing, she hits ‘submit’ with confidence.

Constraints force us to look at problems differently and come up with creative solutions. By limiting options, constraints decrease the activation energy required to get started. Limited options also curtail perfectionism. In education, this might mean using fewer tools or resources to accomplish a task, encouraging students to think more deeply and inventively. For example, limiting research materials for a project can push students to dive deeper into their available resources, leading to a more thorough understanding of the subject matter.

The strategic use of constraints can help students develop vital Executive Function skills. When faced with a restricted scope for a project or a shorter deadline, students learn to manage their time effectively, prioritize tasks, and transition between activities with ease—an essential skill set for both academic and life success.

By imposing time constraints, we can teach students the value of focused effort. Such limitations encourage students to prioritize tasks, work more diligently, and reduce procrastination. A student who has only thirty minutes to study might use that time more effectively than if they had an open-ended schedule, leading to more productive study sessions and better retention of information.

Strategic Application of Constraints to Help Students Thrive

Educators and parents can introduce limitations in a way that aligns with students’ learning objectives.

Efficiency can be enhanced by setting clear, concise objectives and asking students to accomplish them in a reduced time frame or with fewer steps. Teachers can assign tasks that traditionally take a week and ask students to complete them in just a few days. This is the approach exemplified by the timed-writing assignment. It pushes students to eliminate inefficiencies in their work process and quickly determine the most direct path to success. It’s not about rushing but rather about streamlining the approach to the task.

In terms of focus, constraints can be applied by limiting the number of tasks a student can work on at once or adding discrete time windows to tasks. Using the time timer, students can focus on single-tasking. This encourages deep work on a single task rather than multitasking across several. For example, a parent might encourage students to complete one subject’s homework before moving on to the next, thus promoting a deeper level of concentration and immersion in each subject area.

While introducing constraints can significantly benefit learning, it’s important to balance these limitations with adequate support. Providing clear goals, offering feedback, and teaching students how to work within these boundaries are crucial steps in ensuring that constraints become a powerful tool for enhancing learning rather than a source of frustration. A supportive framework helps students understand the purpose behind the constraints, ensuring that these strategies improve their learning experience rather than hinder it.

Through careful planning and thoughtful implementation, constraints can become a catalyst for student growth. They help develop a disciplined approach to learning and encourage students to discover innovative pathways to problem-solving. By embracing the principle of strategic limitation, we can prepare students not only for academic success but for a lifetime of creative and efficient thinking.

Closing Thoughts

By carefully selecting and applying limitations, we can help students discover innovative solutions, develop essential executive function skills, and prepare for the challenges of an increasingly complex world.  Incorporating constraints into the learning process can be a transformative strategy, one that prepares students for the complexities of modern life.

We invite you to explore our other insightful blogs for more on this and related topics, and encourage you to reach out to learn more about our personalized academic coaching services.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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