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Asha Dornfest

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Asha Dornfest is the founder and editor of Parent Hacks, a blog that shares "forehead-smackingly smart parenting tips." She's also the coauthor of Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less, with Christine Koh. Asha lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two kids.

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The freedom of constraint, Part I

By Asha Dornfest |


Photo credit: Flickr/Abraham Williams

I can’t think inside my house.

Am I alone in this? Does anyone else feel their cognitive ability leak out of their ears the moment they cross the threshold?

When I walk through the door I’m immediately assaulted by a rush of unrelated details clamoring for my attention. DISHES! CRAP TO TAKE TO GOODWILL! MAIL TO OPEN! DINNER TO BE COOKED! It’s like my house is surrounded by a brain-disruption field. I want to turn around and run away.

I’ve already pegged part of the problem to my extroverted nature — I’m much better among people than alone — but that doesn’t explain everything.

The things tugging my sleeve insisting I take care of them aren’t even my children. I used to chalk up my stunted attention span and tendency toward distraction to my kids’ interruptions, but I can’t even blame them anymore. While they’re at school, I’m home, flitting unproductively between writing, cleaning up, thinking about stuff, running errands, fretting over stuff I’ve forgotten to do, doing household stuff, making phone calls, and haunting social media space procrastinating.

But: Get me on a plane, in a car, in a cafe, or in a new place, and my mental course straightens almost immediately. The idea for Parent Hacks was born in a cafe in Amsterdam. My best brainstorming happens on the plane ride back from vacation or a conference. This post is getting written in a Portland coffeehouse. When geography imposes a limit on my mind’s ability to wander, my brain gets to work.

Constraints inspire creativity. Twitter figured this out by limiting updates to 140 characters. When you can’t do anything you want, you focus on what you can do, which increases the likelihood you’ll do it well.

I’m thinking about how to apply this particular discovery to my life. Do more work in coffeehouses, perhaps. Travel more, if I can. Follow a budget. Impose a few dietary restrictions, just to see how I feel. Turn off wi-fi. Remember that setting limits with my kids helps them strengthen problem-solving skills.

How have constraints made you creative in your own life?

Roxanna (Everyday Treats) talked about just this scenario in Creativity is Born Out of Limitation.

Read Part 2: What will you limit to make room for something awesome?

Read more from me at

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About Asha Dornfest


Asha Dornfest

Asha Dornfest is the founder and editor of Parent Hacks, a blog that shares "forehead-smackingly smart parenting tips." She's also the coauthor of Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less, with Christine Koh. Asha lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two kids. Read bio and latest posts → Read Asha's latest posts →

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13 thoughts on “The freedom of constraint, Part I

  1. Shawn Burns says:

    Kierkegaard noted that human beings are challenged by two different kinds of despair: the despair of the infinite, and the despair of the finite. I think there’s something to this, and that unfetteredness is as paralyzing as having no options at all.

  2. Asha Dornfest says:

    Shawn: I have used the word “unfettered” and “untethered” to describe how I felt while in the throes of new parenthood. Past identity gone, new identity forming, but slowly enough that finding community (ie, making my world small enough to feel navigable) was hard for a time.

    I’m going to think about what you said for a long time.

  3. Asha Dornfest says:

    And now for something totally practical: today’s self-imposed constraint is working in a cafe without a power cord so I have to get my work done before the charge runs out.

  4. Jen Van Meter says:

    That I’m reading your blog while at home, with kids at school and–finally–some clear space on the calendar to write my own stuff? Yeah, I know what you mean. Glad to have seen it; now switching off wifi and trying to refocus.

  5. Homa says:

    Becoming a mom has been the ultimate refocusing constraint. At first I was shell-shocked an wondering when I could go back to feeling like “me.” My daughter nursed for hours at a time with maybe 20 minute gaps. I let go of all my previous pursuits. Then we discovered her extensive food allergies at 15 months (her nursing had been for comfort, I felt so guilty that my diet had hurt her). She finally took solid food but now I had to empty the house of allergens and relearn how to cook. That constraint has meant more “real” food for myself and my family. Then when she was 22 months I weaned her in time for my son to be born 6 weeks later. He is 19 months old now and the world feels like it is opening up to me again but with the difference that I can use a random 15 minutes better than an hour before I became a parent. I still think day to day, though, so I do feel anxiety over the future creeping in where I used to not have time for that brand of worry.

  6. Sleeping Mom @ Sleeping Should Be Easy says:

    Have you checked out the book The Paradox of Choice? The author ran studies and tests with amazing results: the less options there are, the more likely people will take action. Sometimes when we’re just so inundated with options, we can’t make up our mind. “Is this one the better the choice? How about this one?”

    Children also need boundaries. As much as they test them, they’re more likely to thrive when they’re constrained within rules and limitations.

  7. [...] Read the full post at Babble Voices: The freedom of constraint, Part 1 [...]

  8. Caleb Gardner says:

    Seriously Asha? Get out of my brain. I’m the exact same way.

    And PS, I wrote a post about something very similar to this a few months ago. Have you heard Barry Schwartz talk about the paradox of choice?

  9. Boston Mamas says:

    Well, you know that implementing constraints — doing less — is a big part of my journey of late. I think part of it is constraining to appreciate and be more mindful about what is in front of you. So, for example, a couple of weeks ago I decided to stop eating dessert for a while. Which, for a sugar-aholic, is pretty major. But I was feeling sort of foggy and blah and wanted to detox without doing something extreme like a cleanse.

    Shockingly, I went two weeks without dessert and it was totally fine. And when I decided to intentionally eat a piece of cake on Violet’s birthday on Sunday, it was divine and I enjoyed it even more having not had any sweets for a couple of weeks. And then I went back to no desserts.

  10. Asha Dornfest says:

    Whoa, I feel myself getting WAY OUT THERE. Oh, hell, I’ll just go with it and blame Shawn Burns (@BackpackingDad, the first commenter on this post, and author of Parenting Off the Map here at Babble Voices).

    Constraints, mindfulness, self-control…all are part of many traditional spiritual practices. Think: yoga, meditation, dietary laws. Isn’t it Lent right now, in fact?

    The non-religious among us might see this as a metaphor for embracing constraints…not as a punishment or as a way to make up for one’s past sins of eccess, but as a way to sharpen our focus on what’s in front of us. On what’s important. On what we have. On what we want more of in our lives.

    Christine (Boston Mamas) gave a talk at Blissdom about “doing less as a life strategy.” It was a fantastic talk and the response from the audience was powerful. Many there seemed to be suffering from this paradox of choice. Constraints, thoughtfully chosen, offer a way to navigate. As long as they’re not blinders.

  11. Homa says:

    Love the idea of embracing constraints apart from any particular religion or spiritual practice. Especially important is your caveat about blinders. Good food (or in Christine’s case, cake!) for thought.

  12. Juliana says:

    More choice almost always means less satisfaction, less productivity, and less creative ability. I lived in Russia not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, and there were still a number of “soviet-style” grocery stores around. Western consumer goods (things we consider necessities like feminine hygiene products) were in short supply and VERY expensive. Food was monotonous in brand and type. But life was simple and easy, and while it was frustrating to have to search out every little thing, at least when I found, say, toothpaste, I didn’t have to stand dumbfounded in front of a wall of similar brands and wonder what to pick. I remember when I first came back to the States for a visit, I went into a big box store for some little thing (probably toothpaste!) and I just stood there for a long time, paralyzed by indecision. The whole thing was totally overwhelming to me, and I couldn’t get my mind around all the varieties and choice after so long with such constraint.

    I went back to Russia to live again the early 2000s, and while there was more in the way of consumer items, choice was still limited and I appreciated that so much. I still find myself overwhelmed by the huge number of choices I have to make every day as a consumer, and find myself longing for that kind of simplicity again.

    On a more metaphysical level, constraint is good for the soul–I don’t know of many religions that don’t encourage restraint in some form or another. These things tame the passions, and allow us to mature and be useful human beings, not tied to our every whim and desire, but able to think beyond ourselves and about others.

  13. CM says:

    Yes. I am the exact same way in my house. I often think I would be at my most productive if I just rode around on the subway all day.

    I was very productive during law school, and I think the reason was that I’d be out of my house, but still had a number of different types of places that were conducive to working. Library if I needed to buckle down and concentrate, student center if I wanted people around, cafeteria if I wanted a snack while reading, gym if I needed activity to keep me awake while plowing through my corporate tax reading. It was great having the flexibility to work anywhere I wanted, depending on what kind of mood I was in. I don’t have that anymore, now that I have a desk job, and my productivity suffers as a result.

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