How Restrictions Can Liberate Your Work

When we think of creativity, we think of boundless ideas. We think of freedom, of playful curiosity that leads you from one thought to the next, like stones skipping across the surface of the water. We think of wide open fields for the mind to figuratively run and jump and skip through, beholden to nothing and constrained by no borders.

And in rare instances, that’s exactly how it works. But most of the time, those flowery metaphors belie a much more nuanced and effortful exercise.

In reality, the mind doesn’t know what to do with so much choice. Our creativity is actually inhibited by that much freedom, that much open-endedness. We become paralyzed and unable to make decisions. And in the realm of software design and development, delays like that cost time and money we simply can’t afford.

Citing researched Barry Schwartz in a piece for Fast Company, Jane Porter discusses the impact of an (over)abundance of choice, saying, “‘As the number of options increases, the costs, in time and effort, of gathering the information needed to make a good choice also increase.’“ The result is what Schwartz deems a “choice overload”.

We hear about this in consumer contexts — how having to choose among all the options for soap, for example, can actually sow discontent in purchasing audiences and inhibit one’s ability to make a decision. But we rarely talk about in the context of creation. We still, for whatever reason, hold tight to the idea that the more freedom we give ourselves to creatively roam, the more creative we’ll be.

Why should it be any different, though? Why would choice overload cause us to suffer in the consumer context, but grant us some form of ultimate freedom in the creative one? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. It isn’t any different at all. Our minds need some rules and guidelines in place before that kind of open, wandering creativity can occur.

As Porter notes, “A study from New York University found that ‘restricting the choice of creative inputs actually enhances creativity.’ In other words, letting yourself have less options to choose from can help you arrive at a more creative answer.” It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true: hem yourself in, and you’ll find yourself more able to break out of a creative rut.

In an article for the New York Times, Alina Tugend discusses this same choice dilemma where more doesn’t always equal better. She cites research scientist Benjamin Scheibehenne’s take on the choice equation. “As Mr. Scheibehenne said: ‘It is not clear that more choice gives you more freedom. It could decrease our freedom if we spend so much time trying to make choices.’”

Decision making without constraints becomes harder, and takes more time, which ends up limiting us in different (and likely less productive) ways than if we’d set specific parameters at the outset of a project.

We’ve written before about the creative process and how difficult it can be to achieve desired outcomes from a brainstorming session. The open-ended, throw-everything-at-the-wall method of traditional brainstorming is one of the hardest ways to produce quality creative outputs. As we noted then, without careful planning and constraints, the sessions are apt to quickly derail or lose momentum. We need boundaries to keep us heading towards a productive end point.

“When you’re designing for mobile or smaller screens, for example, it forces you to really focus on and evaluate the core thing that is important in that moment for the user,” says Cara Tsang, Lead User Researcher at Myplanet. “Without the luxury — or, more often, burden — of a surplus of options, things stay super streamlined and simple.”

When you have specific limitations, it can free you up to pour additional creative energy into finding new and interesting ways to solve for the core thing you need to focus on. And setting out certain restrictions and boundaries doesn’t just lead to more creative solutions, it also leads to clearer-headed, more certain solutions.

Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg are both known for wearing basically the same thing everyday, a choice they’ve each made to help minimize the cognitive load that having too much choice creates. By constraining their choices in this one realm, they give their brains more space for the thinking that matters most in other realms.

As Porter notes in her piece, “Imposing your own constraints when trying to make a choice in your professional and creative work can help you make a better thought-out decision.” By forcing yourself to adhere to a few strictures or guidelines, you can improve the outcomes of of your work.

“Being constrained in budget forces you to creatively think about how you can reuse layouts and interactions,” says Cara, “which can reduce the number of patterns/interactions a user needs to learn to use your site.” Those tighter restrictions around what is and isn’t possible can lead you to creating a solution that might ultimately serve your users better.

We all love to think of some ideal state where no restrictions exist, with unlimited time and budget and where anything we dream up is immediately possible. But often, when we find ourselves given even half of those options, we freeze up, overwhelmed by possibility and burdened by endless choice. When we start to claw back in a few key ways, the we can actually find ourselves with greater freedom to just play around with our ideas. And the end result is usually a more interesting, more certain solution that serves your users better.

Be sure to 👏 and share. And let us know what you think in the comments below.