Sometimes when we tell ourselves that certain constraints keep up from doing what we say we would like to do, the real problem is sloppy language and careless thinking. Here is one way to clarify constraints.
What Is a Constraint Statement?
When you tell yourself (or others) that you would like to do something such as take an overseas trip or relocate or make new friends but can’t ( for whatever reasons) you are making a constraint statement. Basically, all constraint statements take the form of “I can’t do A because of B.” You have undoubtedly heard many constraint statements and probably even made a few yourself.
Constraint statements often sound absolute. Clearly, you know what you can and can’t do. Some people tend to worry and fuss over perceived constraints and others simply accept the perceived constraint and abandon their goals. There is another way to deal with constraints. It is described and illustrated in this piece.
True, some constraints are absolute in that there is nothing you can do about them. But don’t be too quick to jump to that conclusion in any give instance. For example one retired couple had planned to spend a summer traveling in England. When they began to collect lodging information, they concluded that their limited budget constrained them from taking such a trip. Their definition of lodge was limited to hotels and motels in cities . They assumed that there were no other options. A friend challenged their definition and suggested that they consider a combination of staying in rural bed and breakfast sites and making day trips to cities, and to look into using college dormitories. After a little investigation, they discovered several colleges in the UK that rented student rooms to tourists during the summer. They also found that by staying on the outskirts of metropolitan areas, relative inexpensive B&Bs could be found. So, by expanding their thinking about “a trip to England” they were able to over come a perceived constraint.
An accident caused a man to become blind. “I’ll never read again”, he said, his underlying assumption being that blind people cannot read. Then he discovered that machines were available that allowed blind people to read print. One macnine is tactical, another is audio. With practice on one machine, he learned to “read” print again. He was able to overcome his constraint when he revised his underlying assumption to a constraint statement, namely: “If I am to read again, then I must invest the time and effort in learning to use electronic reading devices.”
Thus one way of clarifying constraints is to be sure that we are not confusing the improbable with the impossible. It is easy to do. Another means is to be careful about using words such as “all,” “never,” “can’t,” “none,” “impossible,” “every,” and “only.” We often use such words carelessly. We really don’t mean to speak in absolutes, but when we do we begin thinking in absolutes.
Perhaps the most powerful means of clarifying constraint statements is to identify and examine the assumptions that underlie them. Underlying assumptions can get you into trouble so fast that you don’t know what happened until it is almost too late.
Changing Constraint Statements to Contingency Statements
The simple point of this thinking technique is to change constraint statements into contingency statements. As we saw, a constraint statement tells you why it is impossible for you to pursue a goal or desire. In contrast, a contingency statement makes explicit what you will need to do in order to overcome the “impossible”. Here is how it works. As we noted earlier, when you begin to complain or are frustrated about a perceived constraint, try to (1) determine whether your perceived constraints are absolute or relative; (2) be careful with the language you use to describe constraints to yourself; and (3) be specific about what a perceived constraint involves. When you have done that, then try the following four step procedure.
Make a constraint statement using he form ‘I cannot do A because of B.”
Identify the underlying value(s) or assumption(s) if they exist. If there are none, and you are working strictly on the basis of facts, then you probably have a very difficult constraint. Even so, it may not be fixed in concrete.
Analyze and clarify the value or assumption.
Make a contingency statement using the form, “If I am to do action A, then contingency B must be solved.” In other words, you change your way of thinking from B is constraining you from doing A, to doing A is contingent upon your dealing with B.
Let’s consider a few illustrations.
A newly retired woman was interested in increasing the amount of time she devoted to service clubs. When she mentioned this to her husband, he clearly responded in a resentful manner. He preferred she not make commitments so that she could be more responsive to his more or less spontaneous suggestions for travel and other joint activity.
Constraint Statement: I cannot devote more time to service club work because my husband would resent it and that would be unpleasant.
Underlying Assumption: The satisfaction derived from club work would not compensate for the unpleasantness it would cause in the relationship with my spouse. There is little I can do about his feelings.
Clarification: Yes, the unpleasantness is to be avoided. However, his resentment is not a fixed condition. I should be clever enough to deal with his reactions in a positive manner so that we both can meet our desires. Even if I have to take major responsibility for making this happen that is okay. The payoff is sufficient for me to put some thought and effort into making it happen.
Contingency Statement: If I am to devote more time to service club work without it having a negative impact on our relationship, then I will need to anticipate his reactions and engage in compensatory activities that will meet his desires for companionship and attention.
A retired couple found that they were less pleased with their retired lifestyle than they had anticipated and decided that starting a small business might bring the variety and stimulation they both desired. Both had been salaried public sector employees during their working careers. As they discussed their business plans they became discouraged and tentatively concluded that such a desire was not feasible.
Constraint Statement: We cannot go into business for ourselves because we lack sufficient risk capital.
Underlying Assumption and Value: Going into business requires risking capital and we do not have capital that we are willing to risk. (Note the change from viewing risking funds as a forgone condition to taking responsibility for taking that position. It is not that they cannot risk capital, it is that they choose not to.)
Clarification: There are many small business that do not involve risking significant capital investments. The only thing we would really risk would be our time. What little capital spent could be considered a leisure expense. Also, while it would be nice to generate an income from a business, the activity and challenge are the more important motivators for us.
Contingency Statement: If we start a small business then we will first need to do some research to identify alternatives that can be done with our skills and time and that require next to no costs and that appear to be interesting.
The couple may or may not decide to open a small business, but in either case two aspects of the situation have changed. First, they are no longer placing the blame for their not taking a desired action on some externally imposed constraint. Instead, they have recognized that the desired action is possible, but it is their own values that are the obstruction. Second, they have moved from thinking in terms of absolutes towards thinking in alternatives. Having begun this kind of analysis they are more likely to examine what they mean by “starting a business”. They might even discover non-business activities that would satisfy their needs that got them to thinking about starting a business in the first place. It is not usual to start an activity without being clear about the underlying motive. For example, taking a summer trip with a car load of family is often not the best means of enhancing family togetherness.
If this idea about clarifying constraints appeals to you, you might practice on what appears to be simpler constraint situations. Another way to increase your skill is to do constraints analysis with a group small group such as an office staff or family. It may help you be more creative in solving real constraint problems.