How Introducing Constraints Improved My Creativity
Limitless choice can trigger decision paralysis and fatal perfectionism. Introducing constraints can give your work a sense of play again.
Conventional wisdom leads us to believe that the more options we have, the more creative our work will be. Research suggests, though, that the opposite is true… to an extent. When people have fewer options and aren’t overwhelmed creatively by the paradox of choice, they tend to come up with more innovative ideas.
A study detailed in the Harvard Business Review states that,
“We reviewed 145 empirical studies on the effects of constraints on creativity and innovation, and found that individuals, teams, and organizations alike benefit from a healthy dose of constraints.”
My own intermittent paralyzation when staring at my gaping blank computer screen made sense in this context. Perhaps I just needed to give myself a few guidelines.
As a writer whose job is to create consistently, this is a useful bit of information. I decided to begin experimenting with constraints in my writing a few weeks ago by adding different types of boundaries. I also applied limits to my other creative endeavors (I choreograph dance and produce films as well). Most of the constraints I applied helped me create quality content.
A constraint is a limitation or restriction that is placed upon a process or project. So, for instance, an outfit constraint might be that I could only dress in neutral-colored clothes. Or, an artistic constraint might be that the artist could only use recycled materials and paint. While this may seem like a creativity-limiting exercise, I found that it actually helped get my creative juices flowing.
As Barry Schwartz writes in The Paradox of Choice, “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.” So, cutting the number of creative possibilities down from unlimited to (for instance) 20 frees our brain from the overwhelm of too many choices.
During my constraint experiments, I applied and tested adding different limits to my writing, choreography, and filmmaking. It helped me realize that the goal was to create things. Not to create one perfect thing. And, trying to solve the problem of the constraints I imposed, I found that I was less judgmental of my work during the process.
Below are three different types of constraints that I imposed in different situations. I’ll share them in hopes that they might help you spark creativity in your endeavors as well.
I am currently writing this piece working within a time constraint. My husband and son have gone out to run errands (which usually takes around 90 minutes). I plan to finish the first draft by the time they return. It won’t be perfect and it will need a lot of editing, but it will be done.
People (like me) who tend to be perfectionists can work on a project forever, tweaking and changing things indefinitely. Some things just never get done. I have found that, if I give myself a very specific amount of time in which to create, I am significantly more productive. This works for all of my creative endeavors — choreography and filmmaking as well.
Quickly completed projects are obviously not always of the highest quality, but I have found that I can more easily create flow if I set aside an uninterrupted and finite amount of time in which to do the first draft of a story, a dance, or a production schedule.
Additionally, specifically with imposing a time constraint on my production of choreography, I was forced to just “make it work.” When I gave myself an hour to create a one-minute piece of choreography, I became stuck at one point trying to find the perfect transition step. My time constraint forced me to just choose a step that I thought wasn’t the best and move on from there. I finished the choreography and went back a day later to fix the awkward movement.
I have a favorite project that I assign to my students every fall. They must create a short film in one day with only two cast members in a specific location. They complain for a few minutes: “But, we need a third person to be a waiter at the restaurant!” “Our story doesn’t work unless we shoot it on the morgue set!” “Can I just shoot one quick scene tomorrow?” My answer? Make it work.
By the time the students finish, their creativity is off the charts. In one living room set with two people, they have created films about zombies, spies, ill-fated lovers, aliens, sisters, adversaries, and two people who were the same person — all within 24 hours.
This constraint can be applied to so many different creative outlets as well as, well, just life. I’ve found that I’m most creative with my child when I decided that we’re only going to play with construction paper. No scissors, no sparkly glue, no markers, no stickers. (Incidentally, this guideline can also be very handy when planning a dinner with only tomato sauce, rice, and eggplant in the kitchen.)
A study in 2015 detailed in the Journal of Consumer Research found that, when limiting the resources available to study participants, they were more creative in their solutions to problems. It was as if the study gave them the liberty to use their resources creatively because, well, they had to. My students created innovative two-person spy films on a living room set because they had to as well. And they were as fantastic as my improvised dinners.
As a freelance writer, I usually have the freedom to write about pretty much anything I want to write. As Barry Schwartz would point out, this can sometimes be a problem. So, I decided to impose what I called a “topic guideline” to my writing.
I invited my friends to suggest topics for my writing. They were only allowed to give me nouns and I would then figure out the rest. Boy, did they have fun with this assignment. I received suggestions for things from Sex in the City to lamps to effluvium to my Roomba. And I wrote articles about every suggestion (including writing an article about inviting my friends to come up with the ideas).
The fascinating thing about this exercise was that, once I began thinking about one of the topics I was given, I found a way to make it an interesting article (or, at least I thought so). I wrote about how I had changed from resembling one character in Sex in the City to favoring a different one, I wrote about smells in relation to sales, and I wrote about what my Roomba is teaching me about entrepreneurship. It was actually FUN! I was using my creative energy to solve the problem of how to turn the topic of my Roomba into a fully realized article.
I believe this concept can be applied to practically any other creative endeavor. Perhaps an interior designer creates a desert-themed room or, like the film Birdman, a cinematographer uses only one type of camera shot for the entire film. In both of these circumstances, limitations enhance creative output.
Creativity is an individual process, but you can use constraints to find new ways to share your creativity with the world. By introducing time constraints, resource constraints, and topic constraints (or maybe even all three!), you can catapult yourself to take a step outside of the box in ways you might not have thought to be possible.
And, in the words of the great composer Igor Stravinsky, “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”