How constraints help you learn how to be more creative

Reading time: About 3 minutes

If you’ve ever chafed against limits — time, money, raw materials or client demands — read today’s post to learn how to be more creative despite constraints…

One of my clients emailed me this week with an important question about habits. 

“I often try to balance between routine and getting out of the routine,” he wrote. “What’s the best way to manage that?”

I know, I know, routines seem dull and predictable. There’s not much about them that sounds terribly attractive, is there? But instead of delineating the problems with routines, I encourage all writers to welcome them. Why? Because these constraints give all of us such a solid basis for creativity and innovation.

It’s a kind of a paradox, really. Something dull and predictable makes us more creative? But think about all the areas in our lives in which we embrace constraints:

Baking: we don’t try to bake a cake without some sort of leavening agent and usually a little bit of flour (even if it’s a gluten-free one like almond flour.) Yet we can all see the thousands of baked goods (hundreds of thousands?) master chefs have produced within the bounds of strict rules relating to food chemistry.

Music: in the Western world, we’ve adapted a 12-tone scale. And within this demanding limitation think of the huge range of different music that artists have created: from Louis Armstrong to Dolly Parton and from Taylor Swift to Aaron Copeland.

Construction and building design: We don’t want buildings to fall on our heads so architects and engineers carefully follow especially severe constraints, yet see the wide variety of buildings they produce: the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Doge’s Palace in Venice, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Finally, let’s look at writing and reading: If we’re writing a book, we know it needs to be divided into chapters. And if we want it to be published by a traditional publisher, we know it must be an average length of 80,000 words (although sci fi and fantasy can be a bit longer.) 

If we’re academics, writing articles for peer-reviewed publications, we know we’re going to need an abstract and our word count goal is in the range of 8,000 words. If we’re readers (in English) we know we need to read from left to right.

Rules. Rules everywhere. We don’t even think about many of them. They’ve become so obvious that they’re unspoken and unnoticed. But they exist.

Businesses are also exceptionally familiar with rules and this is an area that’s produced some interesting research. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, by Oguz Acar, Murat Tarakci and Daan van Knippenberg suggests that managers can innovate better by embracing constraints. 

According to the study, “When there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance – they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas. 

“Constraints, in contrast, provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas for new products, services, or business processes.”

The same mechanism applies to writing. While you might think you’d be more creative with a do-whatever-you-want-whenever-you-want kind of attitude, in fact, having a small but pre-determined time for writing each day is going to help you in three important ways:

1-Routines will make you more productive: When you’ve decided what you’re going to accomplish when, you’re already halfway towards your goal. Your mind and body will stretch to achieve it. Being productive is the opposite of doing everything at once. Instead, it requires you to become highly focused and this focus will allow you to avoid pointless activities otherwise known as “busy” work. 

2-Routines allow you to be more creative: Once you know your limits you’ll be able to push against those boundaries, seeking to find creative ways of accomplishing your tasks.  Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. In each one of them he followed exactly the same structure and yet each one is a little gem. Structures needn’t limit you. Instead, they give you room to move within them.

3-A lack of routine is likely to lead to overwork: If you don’t give yourself limits, you’re likely to work all the time. Writers who work from home — as so many of us do, during the pandemic — are at particular danger of being stuck in this horrible habit. Routines don’t only constrain you. They also protect you.

If you’re convinced about the value of routine, but just can’t seem to stick with your commitment to yourself, this likely means one very simple problem: you’ve made your goal too big. Whatever time commitment you’re trying to achieve, cut it in half. I’ve used this trick myself and it absolutely works. 

And here’s a final — and equally important guideline: From time to time, feel free to break your routine. I think that was perhaps what my client had been getting at – the unbearable burden of carrying the same routine all the time. Sometimes, it just feels too much. We all benefit from switching things up every once in a while. But break your routine deliberately, irregularly — less than five percent of the time— and with absolutely no guilt. (Guilt spoils everything.)

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed the question, how much is too much editing? Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Do you find that constraints help you learn how to be more creative? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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