In this article, I explore types of creative constraints that spark fresh thinking and how you can apply them as part of a creative process.
English novelist Mary Shelley spent the summer of 1816 at Villa Diodati in Cape Geneva. Thanks to an unexpectedly wet and stormy summer, Shelley was trapped indoors. Constrained, she had almost nothing to do but sit around the fireplace, read ghost stories and write.
One dark night, she fell into a deep and troubling sleep. The following day she turned her painful waking dream into an idea for her famous gothic novel Frankenstein.
This admittedly unplanned constraint encouraged Shelley, who was then only 19, to think more creatively. It led to one of the most famous books of the nineteenth century: Frankenstein. You might not care for creating gothic novels, but creative constraints can help spark better ideas and improve your creative process.
Let’s cover the different creative constraints you can easily use for a project, for entrepreneurship or in your business.
The last time I bought a suit for a wedding, the shop salesperson presented me with three options for a matching tie. He laid them out next to my new purchase.
“Why only three ties?” I said.
“More than three choices is confusing for customers,” he said.
It’s possible to weigh up the pros and cons of a few choices, but too many become overwhelming. Impose a constraint by focusing on two or three good choices… or by leaving low-stakes decisions to chance.
Entrepreneur and author Herbert Lui also recommends occasionally flipping a coin for problem-solving. In an interview, he told me:
“In some cases, you assign a decision to each of the dice’s faces or like each side of the coin and that way you really — like you leave it up to chance, destiny, fate, whatever you want to call it, to decide.”
Many creatives are afraid of deadlines, even though they focus the mind and marshalling resources towards an end goal. Ask any writer who’s finished a big project hours before a submission date.
If you’re running a business, give your team a deadline, so they’ve something to work towards. If you’re worried about letting customers or followers down, use an internal deadline for your team and an external one for customers. Elon Musk adopted this approach after he was criticized for missing deadlines at Tesla and SpaceX.
Alternatively, if you’re a solopreneur, assign set work hours for focusing on a particular project. For example, you could constrain yourself to the creative process every morning between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Then, spend the afternoon building your business and later on low-value admin.
The Pomodoro Technique works particularly well for time constraints, as it forces focusing on a single type of creative work for blocks of 25 to 30-minutes before taking a break.
Money is a great example of limited resources for anyone who values entrepreneurship.
In the book Profit First, author Mike Michalowicz explains using money constraints to manage a company’s expenses. He recommends setting up separate bank accounts for each expense category: salaries, advertising, taxes and so on. Each bank account acts as a constraint that prevents a business from using its operating expenses on a single project.
Michalowicz told me,
“With less money, I say, ‘How do I get the same results I’ve always had, if not better, with less money?’ And I start thinking outside the box.”
I use this creative constraint regularly when deciding what to work on or invest in for my business. After paying myself and the taxman, I set aside several thousand dollars each month for commissioning freelance writers and paying virtual assistants to manage the niche websites I operate.
If I identify a task outside this budget, I roll up my sleeves and either complete it myself or figure out a way to generate more money to pay someone to do it. But, I avoid sinking money endlessly into a creative project.
Former Amazon CEO and the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos famously said a team is unproductive if two large pizzas aren’t enough to feed everyone.
Applying Bezos’s approach, could you reduce the number of employees at your next meeting or simply decide only three team members should work on a particular project? Or your company might decide to involve short-term contractors rather than hiring employees and growing too fast.
Several friends run larger businesses than mine. One employs a team of twenty people. He spends a lot of this day managing their workload. He’s ok with that, as he’s not engaged in creative work. However, I’ve imposed a people constraint by deciding only to hire a set number of team members so I can avoid lots of calls, one-to-ones and hiring decisions. That frees up my mornings for creative projects.
Today’s best productivity apps enable us to collaborate with others in ways that Mary Shelly couldn’t imagine. However, reliance on too many tools is often distracting.
Reducing your dependence on a few key tools means fewer things can go wrong because of technical errors. You’ll spend less on subscriptions, and your team won’t have to worry about learning complicated software and processes.
Remember, it’s possible to run most creative businesses, particularly online ones, using free tools like Google Sheets and a basic notes app.
Obsessing over finding the right tools is a distraction and even a type of procrastination. When in doubt, put processes before tools.
As a creative, time and attention is your most valuable commodity. Unfortunately, it’s harder than ever to protect it, thanks to the plethora of inboxes and channels clamouring for a response. Email, instant messaging Slack, Twitter direct messages, Facebook groups, Instagram notifications… the list is endless.
It’s impossible to manage a presence and inbox on all of these channels effectively. Instead, confine yourself. Use one or two inboxes and check them at predetermined periods each day. Better yet, outsource some peripheral inbox management to a team member so you can work on a creative task and not somebody else’s priorities.
Many aspiring creators worry about finding ideation. They wait for a eureka moment or until inspiration strikes. Successful creatives understand the problem isn’t finding an idea; it’s picking one and sticking with it until you either finish or get real-world feedback.
Anyone can start writing a book, but only a few aspiring writers reach The End and call themselves an author.
Anyone can look at a clever startup business idea and say “I thought of that!”. Only a few entrepreneurs take an idea, invest in and work on it until it becomes a profitable reality.
By all means, spend time brainstorming and mind mapping creative ideas for a startup or business. But at some point, constrain yourself to one or two and stick with them until they either gain traction. Acting on one or two good ideas generates better ideas down the road, as you can apply feedback from customers, followers and fans.
Many creatives avoid shipping new products or pressing publish until they attain an impossibly high standard. It sounds counterintuitive, but opting for quantity over quality doesn’t always involve an uncomfortable trade-off.
Shipping work more frequently unlocks more opportunities for feedback for customers, followers and the market. Ask artist Pablo Picasso.
He is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for producing the most paintings. According to estimates, Picasso produced over 13,500 paintings and designs and over 100,000 prints and engravings.
That’s a staggering amount of creative work. Chances are you’re familiar with some of Picasso’s most famous works like Guernica, but even the most knowledgeable art historian would find it a challenge to cite all of Picasso’s works.
The author James Patterson releases at least three books every year and has published over 300 titles. Whether you like his books or not, Patterson gives himself ample opportunities to connect with readers.
Audi wanted to win the famous 24-hour Le Mans race in 2006. The conventional ways of engineers involved building faster cars, but the Audi engineering team couldn’t outpace competitors that way. So, Audi’s head engineer proposed a creative constraint:
“How could we win Le Mans if our car could go no faster than anyone else’s?”
Instead of focusing on speed, Audi engineers developed its first-ever diesel technology race car, the R1- TDI. This creative approach meant Audi’s car spent less time being refuelled and more time racing. Its drivers Frank Biela, Marco Werner and Emanuele Pirro won the 2006 Le Mans as a result.
What technical limitations can you impose?
Considering all the online courses, books and tutorials available today feel overwhelming. Instead, try just-in-time learning, whereby you study a particular skill from a discipline when you need it. In other words, avoid learning Pinterest marketing until your business is ready for that social media channel.
It’s relatively easy to apply this creative constraint, as the bulk of what you need to know is accessible anytime in online tutorials, books or courses.
Like with tools, consuming too much information can turn into a form of procrastination. At some point, it’s far better to take what you learnt, apply it and learn from the results. An A-class execution on a B-class strategy supersedes a B-Class execution on an A-class strategy any day of the week.
You can always pivot later on.
Creative Constraints: The Final Word
After Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein, she said,
“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”
Her gothic idea was chaotic, but her creative work process less so. She sat down to work on her idea and saw it through to the end.
The right constraint frees you up to create from chaos rather than worrying about inconsequential problems. So next time you feel blocked or overwhelmed with work, consider what you can remove. The results will surprise you.
A Beautiful Constraint By Adam Morgan and Mark Barden