I often find that constraints, real or artificial, can be a huge motivation and productivity boost when I find myself stalled on a project or piece of work. Forcing yourself to work within a specific limitation can cause you to find a creative solution in a direction you might otherwise never consider.

In my own work, I find time constraints the most useful. When I don’t know where to start developing or writing, I’ll often force myself to do something – no matter how small or tangential – to move the work along for thirty minutes or an hour. The artificial time limit frees my mind to attempt starting points I might not typically choose because I know that even in a worst case scenario, I’ll only lose an hour worth of work if my chosen path is unsuccessful. Similarly, when I find myself lacking motivation and energy to work, I’ll use the pomodoro technique. That gives me the kick in the pants I need to break the ice and get moving, which can often turn into real energy and sometimes even that magical “flow” state.

A few weeks ago on a Friday night I found myself burnt out from my day job. It had been weeks since I had done any recreational programming or development on my side projects. I desperately wanted to move them forward, but simply couldn’t find the energy.

So I tried an experiment.

I decided to give myself thirty minutes to brainstorm and come up with a product idea that I could then build to a shippable state within the next two hours. Further constraining myself, I decided to forgo my two 27″ monitors and do everything exclusively on my 11″ MacBook Air.

I knew the easiest way to come up with a new product idea was to examine my typical day and find a small pain point that I could solve with software. After mentally going through my usual day in my head, I began to focus on my calendar. I realized that I was often checking multiple times throughout the day to see how much time I had until my next appointment, which would influence which task I could take on before I have to be somewhere. (As many developers will know, a programming assignment that will take an hour, often takes longer as there’s a definite lead-up time before you really begin coding where you work to get yourself into the zone.)

I thought “Wouldn’t it be easier if I could just glance up and see how much time I had remaining?”

With that insight, I had my product idea.

Over the next ninety minutes I built a simple Mac menubar app that looks at your calendar and simply displays how long you have until your next appointment. I call it Up Next. I’ve been using it as part of my daily routine for the last few weeks and have found it works great. Without losing place in my current work, I can glance at my menu bar and see “Oh, I’ve got two hours until I need to be somewhere” or “Crap, I’ve only got twenty minutes to wrap this up”.

That little bit of awareness doesn’t distract me from getting in the flow, yet keeps me persistently time boxed and motivated.

If you find yourself similarly lacking motivation throughout the day, I encourage you to try placing a constraint on your work. And if you think Up Next might be useful to you, you can give the app a try.