Haiku Productivity: The Power of Limits for Increasing Focus

Sometimes we need to be constrained to really get done what we most want to do
By Leo Babauta, www.zenhabits.net
May 7, 2018 7:00 am Last Updated: May 7, 2018 7:10 am

A decade ago, I wrote about “Haiku Productivity” and how limits can make us more productive, more focused, and better able to prioritize and simplify.

The idea comes from haiku poetry, in which the poet is limited to three lines and (essentially) 17 syllables. Such a crazy limit, and yet the poetry that can be produced is often very powerful.

The secret: The poet is forced to choose, forced to simplify, forced to find the essence of the message. The constraints are actually a very powerful thing, because constraints force you to be disciplined, to understand that because you have limits, every element in the container must be important and you can’t just waste words.

Over the years, I have often lost sight of this wisdom, but I keep coming back to it: When a container is unlimited, you’ll just fill it with anything. When you have constraints, you’ll be more careful, be more appreciative of the limited space you have, and explore what’s important to you in more depth.

This applies to every area of life:

  • Productive time: If you have a long list of things to do, and the entire work week to do them, it doesn’t feel that urgent, and you often fill your days with little things—answering emails, messages, group chats, or reading things online. But what if you only had an hour a day, and you had one really important project? You’d be more focused. More on this below.
  • Clutter: If you only allow yourself to have 33 items of clothing for each season, you will be more conscious about what clothes you have in your life. This is true of any possessions: a smaller home means you are forced to choose. A limit on how many books you have makes you pick those that are dearer to you and those you think you can actually read.
  • Projects: It’s easy to say yes to new work or personal projects, and then suddenly your life becomes overfull and you’re not doing a good job with any of the projects. What if you forced yourself to pick just one? Or two? How would that change the way you worked? You might find more focus and fewer complications, and do an amazing job with each project.
  • People in our lives: Some of us keep adding new relationships, making new connections (other people have the opposite problem, not actively seeking relationships, but that’s not the topic of this post). Making new relationships is a beautiful thing, but when we realize that we only have a limited amount of time to create deep relationships, it’s worth thinking about who we want to spend our limited time with, and curate our relationships.
  • Life itself: Life is limited. We all know this, and yet we act as if we have an unlimited supply of life and we can use it up however we want. We fritter away our days on little things, not really appreciating the miracle of each moment, not really taking advantage of the incredible opportunity of each day. What if we saw each day as precious and made the absolute most of it?

The list could go on much further, but what I really want to talk about today is the power of limits in increasing our focus on the meaningful work we really want to do—whether that’s creating art, creating a new business, creating happiness in our team or customers, or working on something meaningful in our personal lives.

Limits and Focus: What I’ve Learned

I’m on a trip to Japan and Guam right now, and with all the things going on with family and other things I need to get done, my time to do work has been limited. Maybe an hour a day, maybe a little more, but sometimes even less.

This has been fantastic for my focus.

I don’t waste (as much) time on distractions, and when I need to write something, I get down to it without delay. I know my time is limited, and I know how important it is to use that limited time wisely.

This is Haiku Productivity, the power of constraints. We often rebel against constraints, but they work for us.

Limit yourself to one habit change at a time, and you’ll be much more focused on that habit change, much more likely to succeed with it. Limit yourself to one important project at a time, and you’ll be much more focused on that project, doing an amazing job with it. Limit yourself to one task at a time, and you’ll be more focused on it.

One task at a time. A limited time box to do that task. Pure focus, with a mindful appreciation of how precious that limited time really is.

Here’s what you might try:

Pick one task to do in the next hour. Make it a hard deadline by promising it to someone by the end of the hour, and making other appointments after the hour is up so you can’t extend the deadline. Your time is limited, and you need to get it done.

Now see what changes with your focus. See if you waste less time and fill your hour with fewer distractions. See if you appreciate that hour more.

This is the power of constraints, and I’d love for you to apply it to a few areas of your life in the next month.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books; the writer of Zen Habits, a blog with over 2 million subscribers; and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net