As a scientist, I appreciate that God has placed limits within creation. As a teacher, I have seen how limits help awaken creativity, making music and games possible. As a Christian, I recognize that God has given moral limits, through His Ten Commandments and through His call to love the Lord our God above all and to love our neighbors as ourselves. As a citizen, I am thankful for limits in the form of laws that contribute to an orderly society. On many levels, I have a keen appreciation for limits, so I was excited at the idea of writing an article about life within limits. However, I did not expect to find it so difficult to write.
The truth is, I appreciate limits in theory, but can resent them in practice. I think I am not alone in that. We humans spend much of our lives resisting limits, and it starts early. When I was a child, I imagined how happy I would be when I was grown up and no one could tell me what to do. I probably even screamed those words familiar to all parents: “You’re not the boss of me!”
As normal as it may seem to chafe at limits, an important part of growing up is discerning what is most important, then based on that, telling yourself what to do. This often involves setting limits and acknowledging limitations. In this article, I want to reframe the way we look at limits.
“…an important part of growing up is discerning what is most important, then based on that, telling yourself what to do.”
I want to discuss two types of limits here: ones we choose and ones that are imposed on us. The ways we respond to these can vary dramatically.
Limits we choose
The ability to make personal decisions is necessary for humans to flourish. Barry Schwartz, psychologist and author of The Paradox of Choice, comments, “When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive.”1
However, past a certain point, the situation changes. Schwartz adds, “…as the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.”2
When we have too many options, we need to set limits. If we don’t, we will be overwhelmed. Instead of living like this, we can take some practical steps to reduce the number of choices we face each day.
Reduce decision fatigue. In a world of seemingly unending choices, setting limits to reduce options can lessen decision fatigue. You could choose a type of uniform for work and/or home, to make getting dressed in the morning easy.3 Maybe you could decide on a very basic meal plan to simplify grocery shopping and reduce time spent cooking. For my family, setting a budget has been a helpful way to acknowledge our financial limits; it has simplified our spending, making it easier to see where we decided ahead of time to give and spend our money.
Learn to satisfice. In The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz distinguishes between two approaches that people take when it comes to making decisions. On the one hand, maximizers “seek and accept only the best.”4 On the other hand, satisficers “settle for something that is good enough and (do) not worry about the possibility that there might be something better.”5 Satisficers still have standards, but they are content to stop looking when they find an option that meets their standard. They do not feel a need to attain “the best.” Herbert Simon, who originated the term satisficer, concluded that “when all the costs (in time, money, and anguish) involved in getting information about all the options are factored in, satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy. In other words, the best people can do, all things considered, is to satisfice.”6
“(W)hen all the costs…involved in getting information about all the options are factored in, satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy.”Herbert Simon
Set boundaries. We have likely all had the experience of an aspect of life becoming more important than it should be. For many of us, phones and other devices fall into this category. Limits can help restore balance. If you constantly check your phone, decide on times of the day and night when it will be off limits. If work feels all-encompassing, decide on a time to quit for the day and honor that decision.
Decide between “now” and “not yet.” I sometimes feel overwhelmed from having too many ideas and too many projects on the go. Maybe you are the same way. In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen suggests making a Someday/Maybe list, which serves as a place to record ideas whose time has not yet come (and may never come). The list can hold onto the ideas, but you need no longer give them regular brain space.
Don’t be afraid to close doors. When we are young, the future seems wide open. We could take any of a number of paths. At some point, doors need to start closing if we are to pursue an embodied, meaningful life. Marrying one person means actively closing the doors of romantic possibility with others. Accepting a job or committing to a course of study means limiting most of your professional energy to a specific subject, and usually also to a specific place and community. If you try instead to keep all doors open, you can spend so much time trying not to miss an opportunity that you actually end up missing your life.
“At some point, doors need to start closing if we are to pursue an embodied, meaningful life.”
Let go of what is no longer needed. As I have gotten older, I find myself wanting to let go of ideas for projects that I am unlikely to pursue. I imagine letting go of these no-longer-needed ideas and watching them float away like helium balloons. Some of the ideas are no longer relevant, such as activities that my children outgrew before I could plan them. I feel lighter when I let them go, as I release the weight of guilt over my own unmet aspirations.
Spend time freely on relationships. Time is one area where we chafe at limits. We can develop a frantic relationship with time as we attempt to get an unending number of things done. For many of us, the idea of living life on our own terms and on our own schedule is deeply appealing. Think of how productive we could be! However, in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman describes what he calls the paradox of limitation: “the more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets. But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead–and work with them, rather than against them–the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes.”7 We can miss the most important things when we focus on being masters of our own time. Burkeman comments, “freedom, sometimes, is to be found not in achieving greater sovereignty over your own schedule but in allowing yourself to be constrained by the rhythms of community–participating in forms of social life where you don’t get to decide exactly what you do or when you do it.”8 Sometimes the inconvenient limits on our time, such as the time needed to maintain and nurture relationships, mean the most in the end.
“We can develop a frantic relationship with time as we attempt to get an unending number of things done.”
Limits we don’t choose
Setting limits is well and good. But sometimes, limits are imposed on us. All of us face limitations that we did not choose. Some of these are incredibly difficult, such as a body or mind limited by disease or illness, broken relationships, or a lack of financial resources to meet our daily needs. How should we approach these limits?
Lament. The brokenness and loss we face are the result of sin. They are not the way things are supposed to be. Though lament is not a common practice for many of us, the Bible is full of examples. Some of the Psalms express deep lament. Job, too, lamented when he felt like God had forsaken him. In these cases, the authors were not so much blaming God as expressing their deep anguish. God invites us into a deeply personal relationship. I believe He welcomes us to express deep emotions, even the dark and discouraged ones. Then God gently reminds us of His presence and gives us the courage to keep going. Singer and author Michael Card describes lament as “redemptive suffering. Lament is not about psychology, about getting things off your chest. It’s about true worship–offering up as a sacrifice your brokenness and pain to God.”9
Face finitude. A refusal to acknowledge limits stems from an unwillingness to face our own finitude. Burkeman writes, “most of us invest a lot of energy, one way or another, in trying to avoid fully experiencing the reality in which we find ourselves. We don’t want to feel the anxiety that might arise if we were to ask ourselves whether we’re on the right path…We recoil from the notion that this is it–that this life, with all its flaws and inescapable vulnerabilities, its extreme brevity, and our limited influence over how it unfolds, is the only one we’ll get a shot at.”10
“We recoil from the notion that this is it—that this life…is the only one we’ll get a shot at.”Oliver Burkeman
Show Up. In a recent article in Christian Courier, Angela Reitsma Bick wrote about her recent experience with long COVID, reminding readers that we are, all of us, vulnerable: “…the truth is, the ground could crumble underneath anyone’s feet, anytime.”11 In our shared vulnerability, let’s show up for each other as best we can. We are not made to walk alone. We are called to “carry each other’s burdens.”12
Remember who and whose you are. Reformed Christians talk a lot about what it means to be imago Dei, made in the image of God. We sometimes forget that we are, first of all, created. We are not in control, however we try to deceive ourselves otherwise. This is often an unsettling reminder. But it is also good news, because we are held by the One who made each one of us, who knows us each by name, who is unlimited but yet stoops down to whisper, “You are mine.”
The Paradox of Choice, p. 2 ↩
The Paradox of Choice, p. 2 ↩
For example, Steve Jobs famously wore a black turtleneck every day as part of his uniform. ↩
The Paradox of Choice, p. 79 ↩
The Paradox of Choice, p. 80 ↩
The Paradox of Choice, p. 81 ↩
Four Thousand Weeks, p. 32 ↩
Four Thousand Weeks, p. 33 ↩
Four Thousand Weeks, p. 29 ↩
Galatians 6:2 ↩