Limiting Yourself: The Key to Your Success

Is it really possible to be more successful by limiting yourself?

Yes.

But limits are supposed to be evil and dirty; the enemies to our inner free spirit. Right?

Well what I’ve realized is that sometimes limits are actually the key to your success.

The Difference

There are unconsciously ingrained self-limitations. And there are consciously chosen self-limitations.

Unconsciously habituated limitations are the kind that just happen to you. You didn’t really choose them, they just kind of showed up. They might be the result of human domestication, institutionalization, or public schooling. Wherever they come from, you probably didn’t consciously decide that you want those self-defeating limits as part of your automatic behavior. No one wants that. To choose something like that on a conscious level would be pretty silly.

So that type of limiting conditioning really sucks.

And it’s no wonder that we become so loathing to the sight or mention of limits.

But it turns out there is actually such a thing as positive limits. That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

That’s what I first thought.

I’ve always been a kind of nonconformist. I’ve long had a streak of wanting to test limits, break rules, and everything else that goes along with a rebellious mindset. Getting into self-development only added to that, as most gurus and “experts” in the human development field will tell you “There are no limits, but the ones you place on yourself.”

Well, what they never really tell you is that some of those limits you place on yourself can be positive.

When you think of a “life without limits” you have a tendency to think that you can do anything. Which is true, to a certain extent. But the problem with the no limit perspective is that it avoids criticism because every critique is labeled as a “limitation.” Real legitimate issues are dismissed as impossibility thinking. Real legitimate problems are seen as selling yourself short, and stifling your potential.

But this is just part of it. The real issue comes when you see all limits as evil without any evaluation.

Because some limits are actually beneficial. Sure, you can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything. The no limit mindset doesn’t really like this idea, though; it avoids boundaries and dismisses them as snares that would hold it down.

Here’s the hidden irony:

The no-limit mindset is actually an act of limitation.

Once you’ve put yourself in a pattern of rejecting all limitation, you’ve embraced a fixed state of being. Your no-limit policy has deceptively limited you.

A few of the positive limits I’ve implemented

I’ve come to realize in my own life that some limitations are positive and necessary. They help me achieve greater levels of success than I could have without them.

  • I limit myself by only focusing on one theme or direction for improvement each month.
  • I limit myself to working on only the most important task every morning.
  • I limit myself to a maximum of 90 minute periods of work, then take at least a 10 minute break.
  • I limit the number of projects I will work on at a time.
  • I limit myself to the number of times I will check email every day.
  • I limit myself by not working on Saturday and Sunday.
  • I limit the amount of time I spend on writing blog posts.
  • I limit the number of coaching clients I will take on at a time.

These are just a few examples of way I embrace conscious limitation in my life.

I’m sure you can think of way that you can implement limits in your life, in a way that serves and empowers you. And the good news is, you don’t have to disband your quest to obliterate self-defeating limits. Just take an intelligent approach to the limits you let into your life.

Coming from someone who’s consistently blacklisted limits from his life, I can fervently tell you that they’re not all that bad. What matters is what you do with them. And more importantly, that you choose them, they don’t choose you.

Photo courtesy of Stewf

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Comment & Add Your Voice

Scott Webb August 20, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Interesting point.

I am going to be limiting the number of photographic art prints that I want to sell. I want to have 1 gallery wrap canvas in a very large size as a limited edition. Only 1. Very limited. Someone will be very special if they purchase it. I further limit the number of works that I put up for sale.

I think this type of limiting in this type of work would, hopefully, different because digital means that I can make unlimited copies of that 24x36inch canvas piece and make all kinds of money from it. But then it’s just a commodity. Of course, there needs to be that different price point and that’s where small prints 5×7 or 8×10 come into play. But I won’t view them as authentic and straight from myself as an artist.

That is my biggest limit I am pursuing right now. Many people are telling me it will never work. *shrug

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Baker August 20, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Because of my personality type, I HAVE to place limits on myself. Otherwise, I spiral out of control and usually into a lethargic state of nothingness.

I love the phrasing you used towards the end of the article. It’s about CONSCIOUS limitations. Whether I decide to make them or not, I make them. It just about making the decision to be awake for the process. Does that make sense?

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SeanG August 20, 2009 at 2:37 pm

Hey Jonathan,
Thanks for the blog post. This happens to be something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, and your post comes at a coincidentally serendipitous time. I appreciate the work you are doing. The site looks great, by the way. Nice job.

SeanG

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Jared Kessler August 20, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Great point Jonathan. I always feel as if we are constantly in our own way.

External problems? Go internal.
*Jared

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jonathanfigaro August 20, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Are you saying having a mindset of having no limitations is a limitation within itself? If so, how can we begin to set no limitations?

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Karol Gajda August 20, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Hey Jonathan,

Great post! What you’re describing as limits can also be thought of as “focus.” Like you stated: “I limit myself by only focusing on one theme or direction for improvement each month.”

I think when most people talk about no limits they’re referring to the fact that anything can happen, you can make as much money as you want, etc. It’s just a question of semantics as far as setting limits and focusing.

You summed it up well, it’s important “you choose them, they don’t choose you.” Not letting others set your limits is the key.

Karol

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Daryl Furuyama August 20, 2009 at 3:06 pm

I’m glad you tackled the myth of “limits” as just being “bad”. Placing limits on yourself to help you succeed because you cannot do everything that enters your attention. You need to focus or you will get nowhere.

In a similar vein, I wrote a little about the effects of rules, which many also see as bad. They are only seen as bad when they hold you back. But often we don’t notice them when they are actually helping us succeed.

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Amber Rae Lambke August 20, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Hi Jonathan,

I love this post!

Great thinking and I’m with you when you say, “I’ve always been a kind of nonconformist. I’ve long had a streak of wanting to test limits, break rules, and everything else that goes along with a rebellious mindset. Getting into self-development only added to that, as most gurus and “experts” in the human development field will tell you “There are no limits, but the ones you place on yourself.”

Placing conscious limits has helped me become far more successful and I’m glad it working well for you too.

Sometimes I get so focused with work that 3 hours will go by and when I stop it’s like I had escaped from reality for a bit. As much as total focus is great, I’m definitely going to try this tip for my own well-being: “I limit myself to a maximum of 90 minute periods of work, then take at least a 10 minute break.”

Not sure if you use a PC or Mac but I use a Mac and recently downloaded the Egg Timer dashboard widget. It helps me easily time and control how long I spend on things like writing a blog post, working on creative / design work, etc.

Thanks!
Amber

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Jonathan Beebe August 20, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Limits or no limits, I think it’s important to see things as they are, instead of going overboard with positive thinking (which can place the illusion of no-limits in our minds, but is a limit in itself as you said).

However, once you recognize how things are, if you’re unsatisfied then instead of focusing on how things are, you shift your focus onto where you want to be… and make sure every action you take is stepping towards filling the gap between the way things are, and the way you want things to be–even if it’s just baby steps here and there.

Keep moving forward, even if it means placing “positive limits” on yourself to ensure you accomplish your goal :-)

Thanks for the great post Jonathan.

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Jai Kai - SharingSuccess.tv August 20, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Whatever happened to flexibility…?
Is it not possible for these limits or any limits to cause resistance?

I agree with Karol’s comment that the context of limits should be more described as focus.

Quantum physics states and proves that there really are no limits and an infinite possibilities

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Rich Lopez August 20, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Jonathan,

Great post. I think conscious limits are essential. Without limits we leave ourselves too many choices. With too many choices, we typically have loose commitments. By mindfully placing positive limits on ourselves, we remove a lot of the conflict that arises from having numerous options available which more often that not results in indecision, inaction and confusion. Sometimes we need to “burn the ships”, as Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez order his men to do when they landed in Mexico. By limiting their options, Cortez and his men were forced to move forward and were compelled to make the mission a success. When you’re focused on achieving something, whether it’s changing careers, checking e-mail less often or working on only one project at a time, often times you can only do so by limiting or eliminating your escape route.

Best,

Rich

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Steve Brooks August 20, 2009 at 7:46 pm

I have attempted to limit my efforts. My attempt to limit myself last about a week. The problem I have is that I get distressed because I am not moving fast enough.
How do you balance moving fast enough to feel achievement with limiting your focus.

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Evan August 20, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Thanks Johnathon, I very much agree. I think the physical is real and so is a field of limitations and possibilities.

Other benefits of limits are the appreciation of differences – in all kinds of relationships.

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Jen August 20, 2009 at 11:38 pm

Hey Jonathan
Like the new look :)
I agree, I’m all for no limits, but I can be prone to jumping form one thing to another and get easily inspired about something new :) which is good in it’s own way, but I realise I need to focus on the next steps to achieve my goals.
Great post.

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Peta Love, Author of Beef Casserole for the Dog's Soul August 21, 2009 at 2:07 am

Lovely post. I’d like to add that in advertising there’s a mantra in creative departments, “give us the freedom of a tight creative brief”.

If you have complete creative freedom to make an ad you very quickly get completely overwhelmed by the possibilities which in turn limits you. Oh, a wee paradox there.

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Jesse Hemminger August 21, 2009 at 2:23 am

My first thought is that it reminds me of discipline. Self-discipline, not corporal punishment. I personally like M. Scott Peck’s definition of discipline as the ability to delay gratification in the moment in favor of a longer term goal. It is like limiting your time checking email even though it would be gratifying in that moment to finish responding to all your emails and clean out your in box, if you did that it would prevent you from working on your other projects or cause you to over work, either way compromising your long term goals.

Limiting seems to come at it from the other side. I find it difficult in the heat of the moment to have the discipline to stop working on something, even though I know I need to do something else (like sleep or eat). Setting a limit before hand is like making the decision to stop when I’m not in the heat of the moment. Then it is much easier to make the right decision.

I think setting limits and sticking to them helps develop discipline. The repeated experience of and not lossing sight of the long term goals and not giving in to your emotional desire to do everything (which is imposible anyway as Jonathan pointed out in his post) and instead stopping yourself at the limit you set helps develop good habits. You become comfortable with stopping in the heat of the moment and then it becomes easier to make the right decision in the heat of the moment when you haven’t set a limit before hand.

That’s a rough idea of how I think discipline and limits could be related. Coming at the same thing from different sides. Not giving up long term goals for short term gratification.

But the gratification of finishing the task is replaced by the gratification of having work on it for 90 minutes, so it is a win win situation.

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Kaushik August 21, 2009 at 3:25 am

I find it most helpful to release all limits and beliefs. Then the “positive limits” you talk about are a natural outcome.

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Lauri August 21, 2009 at 6:21 am

That was an inspiring article.

Limiting yourself can really be a key to success. It’s basically forcing you to focus on the important tasks you need to do.

It could be a good good idea to do a list of limits to myself and read it through every morning.. and make it a habit. :)

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Ron - Heroic Nature August 21, 2009 at 7:29 am

It appears that the beauty within well-defined self limits does not lie in the fact that they hinder, but in the reality that they fine-tune focus.

Good stuff.

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Laura - The Journal of Cultural Conversation August 21, 2009 at 11:01 am

Very insightful – I’ve seen a number of posts this week about setting self-boundaries, burnout, etc. and I think this was one of the most helpful, at least for me. And, I love the new site – fantastic design. Well done!

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Akhila August 21, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Great post! I like this idea because sometimes, our ambition knows no bounds. I want to do 10,000 things all the time and all at once – it’s multitasking and scheduling and brainpower stretched to the max. But sometimes it just leads to extreme burnout.

By limiting myself, perhaps I can get more done while also feeling less stressed out. At some point, ambition just clouds reality.

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Jodi at Joy Discovered August 22, 2009 at 8:28 am

Love the new look of your site! You have a great perspective on this topic and it really helps me, personally. This summer has been busy and one big mishmash of everything coming together in a messy way. I am hoping when my kids go back to school in another week I can set and follow some of the very limits you shared as your examples. I need them in a bad way! And I know my family would benefit from them, too. Thanks for the reminder about this! Have a great weekend!

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Michael Moniz August 22, 2009 at 2:49 pm

I agree!!

Sometimes what holds us back is the ability to act. Many of my coaching clients feel this. They have such great ideas and thoughts but they do not learn how to pick and choose the ones to put into motion and place the others on the back burner.

Focus is really how you create STRONG habits and changes in your life no matter what your goal is. It is all about learning to put forth action to achieve the results you are looking for and not getting stuck with non-movement.

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Brainy August 22, 2009 at 9:59 pm

good points raised
… enough said

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Kaizan August 23, 2009 at 5:33 am

Interesting post.

I think ultimately, success lies in tolerating the ambiguous. Yes, we should aim for the stars, but we also need to be practical about what we can achieve in a day.

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andrea August 23, 2009 at 10:29 am

An artist I know uses this deceptively simple phrase about applying limits for creating focus and therefore success: “I play better tennis because there’s a court.”

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Connie K. August 24, 2009 at 11:17 am

I have to limit myself to the amount of time I share with those I love for I am one who gets carried away by other people’s lives, woes, etc. So, I try to keep centered on my life and limit my expended time and energy on others no matter how dear they are to me.

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Matt "Ikigai" August 24, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Hey Jon,

One of your twitter compadres here (@ikigaiway).

Just today I had to turn down a client for a potential consultation job. I explained to him that I only take so many projects at one time because I feel it gives me the optimal chance to perform well for each.

Great article – important points.

Best,
Matt

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Jonathan August 24, 2009 at 2:06 pm

@ Scott Webb: Usually when lots of people are telling you that it won’t work, you know you have an awesome idea. No risk = no reward.

@ Peta Love: That’s an awesome quote. Coming from someone who’s done a lot of design work in the past, the most frustrating thing is when a client just want you to “make something look good.”

@ Everyone: Thanks for your comments guys, you rock. And thank you for making this such a cool place to hang out.

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nicoleantoinette August 24, 2009 at 8:08 pm

Okay, yeah, you’re FANTASTIC. Your advice is always so poignant and spot on for me. And I know I’m a little late on this, but the site design? Perfection.

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Bob Bessette August 24, 2009 at 8:32 pm

I am the type of person who has to focus on one task, complete it, and move onto the next. I especially like this “positive limit” you have placed on yourself:

“I limit myself by only focusing on one theme or direction for improvement each month.”

I think this is enlightening in that if you only limit it to one theme or direction you can certainly focus on this theme and at the end of the month you should be able to see concrete improvements that you have made as a result of this focus.

Best,
Bob Bessette

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Celes | The Personal Excellence Blog August 25, 2009 at 9:16 am

Great way to reframe the issue Jonathan. I see conscious limitation as prioritization – limiting ourselves to the most important things and putting aside the less important things. Putting a cap on things through limitations also ensure that we’re maximizing the value out of the time we are spending in; i.e. less for more or 80/20.

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Keith August 25, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Great article and it is a great way to discuss the ability to FOCUS ones attention toward achieving goals!

Thanks, and I love your blog!

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Faramarz August 28, 2009 at 3:01 am

I guess you’re right in a way but the thing is you’ve just set limits on how you work. Limiting email or working on the weekends is just going to help you prevent stress etc. While this helps prevent burnout there’s no guarantees it will help your success.

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Dalibor Ruži? August 28, 2009 at 1:08 pm

Almost all good in our life is from conscious choices. And like good cook trim fat from meat to make more enjoyable dinner, we must trim fat from our lives to make them more enjoyable.

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yuro August 29, 2009 at 3:57 am

Great post about limiting yourself.

For me, my most important limitation is don’t test yourself. When you understand yourself truly and you know there are things that you can easily addicted it is easier not to test yourself. For my case, I am addicted to games, if I play just one game I end up playing several game up to 7-8 hour a day. This is when I learn that I shouldn’t test my self not even playing a single game, because I know that I am weak with my addictive problem.

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Vijay - Meditation Techniques Guide August 31, 2009 at 8:24 pm

This is an excellent post! In order to succeed, it is really very important to limit ourselves to the first target at hand and complete it, then move on with the next target. Focussing on too many goals at the same time just diverts our energy and distracts us, and results in failure. You have pointed out the importance of limiting ourselves for success very well. Keep up the great work!

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sameer September 13, 2009 at 10:44 pm

I would rather call them ‘constraints’. Applying constraints to work or ideas is what will actually bring out creativity in oneself.

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Gilbert Ross September 14, 2009 at 10:03 am

Interesting perspective. I would be careful on not falling into ambiguity with the work ‘limits’ though.

I see your list of ‘positive limits’ as being more an act of focusing and narrowing down your to-do list and barring off distractions (which is a very clever thing to do by the way) rather than limiting yourself. I see you drift though of using ‘limits’ to mean setting practical boundaries and action plans.

The above are static limitations (and conscious in your case). There are also limitations to change, growth and improvement which have the real negative connotation of the word ‘limitation’.

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Dee-Ann LeBlanc January 18, 2010 at 12:32 am

As someone who’s worked in multiple creative fields, being told to create something with no limits can actually be terrifying. Where in the heck do you start? When I make jewelry, I often chose a single material or color or object or concept to design a piece around. When I write about a technology I choose a piece of news or recent event or some fascinating aspect of that tech. So yeah, conscious limits are often the key to success, IMO.

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Ema March 24, 2010 at 3:06 am

Hi Jonathan,

another winning post. Why is it, that this is so simple and yet we try to do more and more all the time. I am exactly at this stage, I want to do everything at the same time and have have to limit my daily to do lists in order to focus properly on what is important.

I have started my own blog and am giving ideas and tips on how to find a job which incorporates your passion.

I know that not everyone wants to do their own thing but would love a job which gives them a mission in life but at the same time be well rewarded for it.

Keep up the great work.

Ema

Have Fun And Prosper

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Thea Westra from www.myforwardsteps.com October 31, 2010 at 4:29 am

Thank you Jonathan. Just discovered your blog tonight. Love your work & connected with you at Twitter.
Being clear about what to say ‘yes’ to and to what to say ‘no’ is imperative for business success. In that sense setting boundaries is essential. It’s called discipline. :)
This quote, although a pretty old fashioned one, holds a lot of truth… “Without this watchful attitude of mind, a man is a fool, and there is no prosperity for a fool. The fool allows his mind to be ransacked and robbed of its gravity, serenity, and judgement by mean thoughts and violent passions as they come along to molest him. He is never on his guard, but leaves open the doors of his mind to every nefarious intruder. He is so weak and unsteady as to be swept off his balance by every gust of impulse that overtakes him. He is an example to others of what they should not be.” It comes from an excellent little book that I’ve been reading this week, by James Allen. It’s titled The Eight Pillars Of Prosperity” and a friend of mine has it available at his list of free Mind Power books http://freemindpowerbooks.com
Thanks for your excellent blog and this post.
Cheers,
Thea

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kieransearch April 26, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Thanks Jonathan, great post, to me the essential message was “language”…what terms do i use to describe my efforts to move forwards and make progress, either with my inner life, or my outer life. A regular “refresh” of my language can do wonders for motivation and perspective. Just like if you keep doing the same set of physical exercises the body will eventually plateau…so too i find for the mind. To me the ‘limiting” motif is the same as focus but it’s a fresh new way of being focused. Love it!!
 
Everybody rocks!
 
Kieran

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Anaz23 November 1, 2013 at 10:12 am

Quite a helpful….

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M G RABBI March 19, 2014 at 6:17 am

Thanks for share with this type of thought. I am exactly at this stage, I want to do everything at the same time and have have to limit my daily to do lists in order to focus properly on what is important.

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