March 1, 2022

Episode 28: Constraints

I don’t know about you, but I like to keep my options open. Committing to a particular activity on the weekend for example has always felt like a burden on my free time. Until I noticed how not putting any constraint on myself actually resulted in the biggest limitations.

What you will discover

  • 3 problems that the absence of constraints create for your life
  • Why constraints create freedom
  • How to unleash your creativity
  • How to use constraints to create your best life


Mixed and produced by Adrien Grenier

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Episode Transcript

Hi, welcome to the Excellent Rider podcast! I'm Mélanie, I'm a certified life coach and I specialize in helping people like you get things done, find ease and motivation again, and get unstuck when it feels like you've lost your mojo. And to start this episode, I want to thank Laura in Sweden, who left me a really nice review.

She wrote: "yes! Life-changing tools! A million thanks Mélanie, for making this pod and sharing your work in such an accessible format. Changing my life at every turn. Can't wait for more." And then she left five stars, like literal five stars in the review. So that was really sweet. So thank you so much, Laura, for leaving me those nice words.

I got a lot of energy and purpose out of hearing that my content is helpful for you. And if you're listening to us and you have not yet left a review for the podcast, really, please take the two minutes it takes, because that makes such a huge difference in how many people I can reach that really needs to hear this message.

So if you want to spread the love on the planet, take two minutes, go leave a review. It's really nothing for you. And it makes a huge difference for the podcast and for the people who need to discover it. Thank you so much. In this episode, we're going to talk about a topic that is not very popular, but that is super important.

And that's constraints. Constraints, if you look at the definition in the dictionary, it means a limitation or restriction. And I also like to define it by opposition to what it's not. So it's the opposite of freedom and it's the opposite of keeping your options open. And it's the opposite of a blank page basically.

For example for me, I don't really like to commit to seeing my friends on the weekend. I prefer to keep my options open until I wake up on the Saturday or the Sunday. And I decide what I'm going to do this day. And I like to do that, or I liked to do that because it felt like I want to see in what mood I'm in when I wake up in the morning to decide what I feel like doing.

And the reason I did that was that I have a lot of meetings during the week - like most of us, I guess - so I have a lot of back-to-back meetings. My agenda is very structured, very scheduled. I know exactly what I'm going to do during the day. And so it feels very often like I want my Saturday and Sunday to be free.

I want them to just be open. I want to be able to decide based on my mood what I'm going to do, based on the weather, based on a lot of things that are going to be known at the last minute. And the problem with that attitude is that very often I end up doing nothing special or I end up missing out on a beautiful moment I could have had with my friend.

And it also sends to my friends the message that I don't really want to see them, which is not at all the case. So in this case, thinking that I'm keeping my options open is actually limiting what is possible for me. And it's not allowing me to be exactly the kind of person I want to be or to live the kind of life I want to have.

So I'd like you to notice for yourself, where are the places in your life where you don't put any constraint; where you try to keep everything open. And to notice if that ends up in you not doing what you wanted to do or not creating the kind of experience you want to create for yourself, or maybe you are letting time or others decide for you because you're not taking any decision.

Or the third thing also, which happens to me all the time, is that it, you think you're opening for freedom; your think you're making it possible for anything to happen; but what's actually happening is that you're thinking over and over again of the situation or of the date with your friend, for example, that you didn't answer.

So you add a burden on your shoulders instead of taking a decision and knowing that this is the decision, and then you don't need to think about it until the moment comes. So you just keep on thinking about it. Or if you're anything like me, you have small moments when you forget about it only to have it hit you in the face again with huge force when you remember it.

So total freedom sounds really awesome, but the point I want you to make is that very often absolute freedom backfires. Because there is so much possibility that you end up not choosing any possibility. Or there is so much possibility that you end up being paralyzed by the choice, or you end up going over and over again in your head about all the things that you might do, but you're not doing. So you're not free at all in this kind of situation.

The way I like to think about constraint and freedom is with a little bit of a different image. If you're familiar with the small babies, you know that they love to be snugly wrapped. They love to be quite tightly wrapped in a blanket or in something. And the constraint of the blanket or whatever they're wrapped in, helps them feel safe.

That helps me understand why absolute freedom can be so threatening. The baby was in the belly of their mom and they were snug and tight. And suddenly now they're out in the world and the world is gigantic. Everything is possible. And that can feel very, very threatening because you don't have a clear direction.

You don't really know what you should attempt. You don't really know what's possible or what you should apply yourself to, but if you're really wrapped tight in the blanket of the constraints, then suddenly you can feel profoundly safe.

And when you're feeling profoundly safe, this is when you can, you know, open your mind and gaze at things if you're a baby and learn how to speak or whatever it is that you can learn when you're a small baby wrapped up in a blanket.

But you can enjoy being alive and you can enjoy all of these things thanks to the constraint. So I very seldom personally have a problem with creativity or with determination.

And that's because I am very good at constraining myself. And I want to give you some examples of what I mean by constraint and how you can apply it to yourself. But first I would like to share something that is hugely inspiring to me, which is a society of French writers, mostly writers, some of them have other backgrounds like mathematicians and stuff, which is called the Oulipo.

Oulipo in French, it means OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle, which I will very poorly and very loosely translate to Potential Literature Society or the Society of the Potential Literature. And it's a bunch of people who were very gifted writers and what they did was that they gave themselves very strict, formal constraints. And I will give you a few examples. And wrote beautiful texts based on those constraints.

And if possible, it's not always possible, but if possible, the constraints should not be apparent in the final result. And that creates... That unleashed their creativity. So I'll give you a few examples of the kind of constraints that a famous Oulipians have written with.

So for example, there is a famous set of poems called 100 trillion poems by Raymond Queneau where he wrote 10 poems and each poem has exactly 14 lines. And the poems are printed in a note where each line is independently cut out, which means that you can flip between the different lines that are at the same position in the poem.

So for example, you can very easily read the first line of the first poem, and then you can flip a couple of pages and read the second line of the poem number 10 for example. And then you can read line three from poem number five, et cetera, et cetera. And if you combine these, because there are 10 different poems. So for each line, there is 10 different possibilities. 10 x 10 x 10, fourteen times: that's 100 trillion.

So there's 100 trillion possibilities for this poem, and it's a lot of fun. And the poem takes completely different meaning depending on how you combine the lines of course. The same guy wrote a story, it's a very trivial story about a guy riding a bus and seeing some altercation between other passengers, but he wrote it 99 times with 99 different styles.

So he wrote it as a theater scene. He wrote it as a dream. He wrote it in a very hesitant manner. He wrote it as a telegraphic account. He wrote it in a vulgar style. He wrote it in a very precious style. And you know, all of these different other manners. There's another very famous Oulipian, Georges Pérec, who wrote an entire book, an entire story without using any word that contained the letter E which is the most common letter in French.

You could write a poem for example, or a text where every single line starts with a specific letter. So for example, you could decide to write the first line should start with an A, the second line should start with a word that starts with a B. The third line should start with a word that starts with a C. Et cetera, et cetera.

So you could go through the entire alphabet. And all of these constraints, they sound a little bit crazy, but if you look at the results of what these people have created, based on these constraints, it's actually unleashed their creativity in completely amazing ways. And usually very funny, funny results. So this whole wave of Oulipo really inspired me in the sense that when you have massive constraints, it actually makes your creativity much bigger.

There's another influence I have on that regard for creativity in particular, which is a Brian Eno. So the musician. He apparently, he was playing a lot in a studio or in the seventies. And he was..., so he had a limited time in the studio. He had amazing musicians come together and they had a limited time to create something together.

And creativity, usually we tend to think that it's not on command. And so what he did is that he created a set of constraints for himself and his friends because he noticed that the more constraints they were, the easier it was for them to become very creative. Because when you're very connected, you don't need to worry about all the other possibilities. Suddenly instead of having a 360 degrees amount of possibilities, you only have two degrees in front of you.

And so you really have to focus all of your attention, all of your creativity, all of your brainpower basically on those 2% or 1% or whatever little sliver of reality is available for you thanks to the constraint. And that of course makes you super powerful in that area. So Brian Eno had a set of card which have been called the oblique strategies.

And I really encourage you to go and Google the oblique strategies. I think there's a Wikipedia page where you can read some of the examples of the cards. And the cards are specifically directed for musicians, but if you use your imagination and again, it's just a form of constraint, if you use your imagination, you can also apply them to any situation in life.

So the typical way you would use them is that if you're trying to, I don't know, for example, write a LinkedIn post, you can pick one of those cards and you will write a LinkedIn post with that constraint in mind. So I'm going to give you a few examples of what does it mean in practice to apply constraint to your life or to whatever you're doing.

So when I used to be a project manager 300 years, I used to need very often people to write back to me and give me input about their part of the project. And depending on who it was, depending on how busy they were with other projects; depending on how complicated or new what I was asking them to do was, it could take forever for them to send me a written account of what they were, what they were doing, or their opinion on some topic or something like that.

And so what I learned very early on is that I would write my own interpretation of... Like my own take, what would I answer to the same question? And I would send it to them. Because suddenly instead of sending them a blank page, basically, telling them, you know, can you please tell me what's the status?

And that's a blank page. They have to write on a blank page what their status is. What I did is that I sent them a full paragraph. So first of all, I wrote the paragraph exactly in the style that I hoped they would answer in. So that gave them a very clear direction and a clear idea of what I was expecting as a result.

What kind of length, what kind of details, what kind of numbers... Everything that I wanted. So it gave them a benchmark to work against. And also very often because I had no idea what was going on in their area, I would write a bunch of crap. Obviously. I had no idea. So I was really, you know, stretching my imagination and coming up with whatever I thought had some possibility of actually existing in their area.

So I don't know... if I would ask somebody who is working with a specific technical aspect I knew nothing about, I would Google something; like I would literally spend like one minute to Google something so that I would have a couple of words or a couple of names.

And I would write an entire paragraph based on that. 99.99% of what I wrote was complete crap. But what happened is that it's so much easier for somebody to react than to fill a blank page. So, because they were receiving my paragraph full of crap, suddenly it made it super easy for them to clearly identify what they had wanted to write instead.

And by correcting my text or by replacing 99.99% of my text with their own content, they could very easily produce what I expected them to produce. And so basically what I was doing is that I was limiting their freedom. I was constraining their freedom, but by doing so, I was unleashing their creativity, unleashing their dedication, unleashing their ability to answer very quickly and very efficiently.

I'll give you another example of how you can apply constraint, again, to creativity. So I write a lot of content. I write this podcast, I write a LinkedIn post every day. I write a newsletter every week. I prepare a lot of material for my clients. So I write a lot of content and I never have a problem with coming up with an idea. That is never my problem. I have other problems believe me, don't worry about that.

Life is fair. But I never have the problem of creativity. And the reason for that is that I constrain myself. I apply a huge amount of constraint on my creativity and it makes it so much easier to create. So I'll give you an example: for my LinkedIn content, I have what I call a "content slot machine" that I created.

So, you know, those slot machines in Las Vegas? I have never set foot in Las Vegas, but I imagine that in Las Vegas, this is where you have the most slot machines or maybe in Macau, I don't know. So you know those slot machines where you press on a lever, and then you have different wheels spinning and each wheel will have a different picture on it and you win money if you have, you know, if the different pictures are showing the same thing.

Like five bells or five cherries or whatever it is, I have never played this kind of machine, but this is, this is what I see in the movies, right? So I imagine the same thing where I have five wheels spinning or the number of wheel doesn't matter.

And on each little edge of the wheel, there is a different, a different constraint or a different thing. So for example, for my LinkedIn content, I have one of the wheel is what kind of topic or broad topic I'm going to cover in my LinkedIn post. So on LinkedIn, I speak about coaching. I speak about being an entrepreneur.

I speak about diversity and I speak about being an expat. So my wheel there, on the kind of topic, has four different pictures: one for coaching. One for entrepreneur. One for diversity. One for expat. And then I have a second wheel, which is the kind of angle that I will use in that post. So for example, I'm going to speak about a mistake I made, or maybe a lesson I learned; maybe a tool I use; maybe a fun fact.

I have so many more different ideas. So I have, I think I have about 10 different things on that specific wheel. And then I have a third wheel, which is the format. So for example, is it going to be a text? Is it going to be a video? Is it going to be a carousel or et cetera, et cetera.

And I have several more wheels like this. And then I have a little Excel file with a randomizator and it just makes the wheels spin. And then I figure out that, okay, today I am going to write a post and it's going to be a video, it's going to be about coaching and it's going to be about a tool. So something like that. And because it is so specific and so constrained, it makes it extremely easy for me to have an idea very quickly.

And so it takes zero time for me to write a post because I am constraining my freedom. But what I have noticed is that if I try to have like a blank page and I try to tell myself, okay, let's write a LinkedIn post on anything.

Well, you know what happens? Nothing. Because I don't have any idea because it's just too broad and it's just too vast. And I don't know, it's just too much. And so I feel overwhelmed by the possibilities.

And to come back with the example I was giving you in the beginning of me not wanting to decide what we could do with my friends on the weekend, because I don't want to go constrain myself.

What I have discovered is that it's so much more powerful to identify what am I trying to accomplish by keeping my options open. So for example, maybe I want to rest.

Maybe I want some time for myself. Maybe I want spontaneity. And then I make sure that I have that in my life. And the third example I wanted to give you of applying constraint is when I set a goal for myself.

So when I set a goal for myself, I tell myself very clearly I commit, I go all in and I tell myself, this is the goal I'm going to reach. And these other parameters of the goal. Ever since I started coaching, there has not been a moment in my life where I have not had a goal. I always have a goal that I'm trying to pursue.

So I've had a goal to lose weight. I've had a goal to be in a romantic relationship. Now I have a goal that is related to my business, but I always have a goal. And it sounds like a lot of constraints, to always have a goal. But what it does is exactly the opposite.

Because when I have a very clear goal, when I have the constraint of having a very clear goal, what happens is that all the drama I have about this particular goal comes to the surface.

And when I don't have a goal, it's not noticeable. The drama still exists, but I don't notice it because I don't call it forward because I don't tell myself, okay, I'm going all in with that specific constraint. And when all the drama comes to the surface, when it's all on the table, Then it's super easy to deal with it or super simple I will say.

It's not always easy, but it's simple because it's visible. And so I know exactly what to do with it. So for example, like right now, one of my goals in the business is to have a certain number of clients every week. So if I don't set myself a very clear constraint, if I just tell myself that I would like to get clients or I would like to get more clients.

I don't really push myself. There is no real constraints because I'm just giving myself a generic direction, but I'm not telling myself exactly what is the constraint. But when I tell myself I want to sign 10 clients this month, for example, very specific; that makes me be more resourceful.

It makes me dare more. It makes me reach out to people I would normally maybe not have dared to reach out to, or maybe not bothered to reach out. But suddenly when I tell myself I'm going to sign 10 clients this month, this is when I start sweating. This is when I start to really go all in and to find, to dig deep in me to find where am I going to find the ideas for reaching all of these people and making sure that I have 10 people who are interested in joining the program.

Constraints are your best friend. They're the kind of friends that look a little bit ugly to start with. Maybe some of them have a little bit bad breath, but let them in any way. Because when you have constraints in your life, those constraints, they always have the magical power to help you uplevel.

So if you found this episode helpful and you want to help the podcast, the best way is to share it with other people, either by leaving a review or by tipping a friend about it.

And if you want to go further, you can check out my coaching program on This is where we study these concepts in more details. And then I show you how to apply them to your specific situation. And I help you create the results that you're longing to create. Thanks a lot for listening today.

And remember that even when you can't get yourself to do what you want, even when you're stuck in negative emotions and unpleasant thought loops. And even when you don't believe it, especially when you don't believe it, you're not broken. You're not flawed. And you're not jinxed. You're just learning how to be an excellent rider.

There's no bad horse. Only untrained riders.

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