How Constraints Make You More Creative

There is a common misconception that creativity thrives on “openness” and a lack of boundaries. Schools are criticized for hindering creativity with rules and people complain about the limitations of their work. They dream of projects where they have complete freedom to do as they please. But this is not necessarily the best thing to wish. Putting constraints on your work can actually increase your creativity.

“Recent studies offer evidence that, contrary to popular belief, the main event of the imagination — creativity — does not require unrestrained freedom; rather, it relies on limits and obstacles.” — Matthew May, The Laws of Subtraction

Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry

Disney Hall architect Frank Gehry loves having limitations with his work. Part of why Disney Hall’s interior is so iconic, is owed to the trickiness of creating a space with perfect acoustics. Gehry has said, “It’s better to have some problem to work on. I think we turn those constraints into action.” He even admitted that, when asked to design a house with no restrictions, it was one of his greatest architectural challenges ever.

When you ask your friend or partner what they want for dinner and they reply, “Anything,” it’s frustrating. Besides the fact that this leads to decision fatigue, it keeps you from being creative. You begin to think of your most common options. Given the challenge of making a dish with the sparse ingredients from your kitchen may lead to something more exciting. Any writer who has stared at a blank page with writer’s block can understand how this works. When the option is to write about anything at all, your mind can go blank as to what direction to take. However, if you add in a few constraints, suddenly there are unlimited paths to follow.

“Creativity is often misunderstood. People often think of it in terms of artistic work — unbridled, unguided effort that leads to beautiful effect. If you look deeper, however, you’ll find that some of the most inspiring art forms — haikus, sonatas, religious paintings — are fraught with constraints.” — Marissa Mayer, Yahoo! CEO

The tougher the maze, the more creative it forces you to be. This one is located in Paris.

A study done at the University of Amsterdam investigated how obstacles affect global and local processing. In one part of the study, participants received a computer maze with or without an obstacle. Then they took a remote associations test, which is commonly used to gauge creativity levels. People who were primed to think with a constraint frame of mind scored 40% better than those without the obstacle. According to the research, “Consistently, these studies show that encountering an obstacle in one task can elicit a more global, Gestalt-like processing style that automatically carries over to unrelated tasks, leading people to broaden their perception, open up mental categories, and improve at integrating seemingly unrelated concepts.”

Next time you have a creative block, rather than trying to free yourself of constraints, consider adding more. You can always remove unnecessary obstacles later, but limiting yourself can rev up your original thinking. How creative you are isn’t something you’re born with. It’s a skill you can work to improve at. Like most skills, the more you challenge yourself, the more results you will see. How do you kickstart your creativity?

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