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How to Be More Creative: Imposing Constraints to Free Up Your Creativity

How to Be More Creative: Imposing Constraints to Free Up Your Creativity

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
9 min read

Jack White is known for his forceful guitar riffs, long hair, and a string of rock hits that sound timeless from the moment they hit your hears. His rare success in the music business has given him the freedom to use any tool, spend any budget, and take on any expense.

But that’s not how he creates. He does just the opposite. In an interview on The Tape Op podcast, he said:

“Most of the things I've recorded have been on 8-track, whether it's 1/2-inch, 1-inch or now 2-inch. I like the constriction of 8-track. I like knowing in the back of my head that albums like The Beatles’ Revolver were recorded on 4-track. If we can't do it on 8-track, twice as many tracks as that, then what are we doing here?”

Meanwhile, his peers have brought the latest tech into their writing and recording processes. They’re using software like Pro Tools, the industry-standard for making the music you hear on the radio. Forget White’s pedestrian 8 tracks - Pro Tools can process as many tracks as you can throw at it without a hiccup. White instead has opted to record on analog, reel-to-reel tape. The same kind you’d see in an old TV show or movie. His producers and engineers don’t like it, because they have to operate under the same limitations. For White, the reason for the choice is obvious.

“Mixing something in Pro Tools where there's an unlimited opportunity, I just don't like it. It feels really uncomfortable to me. It's just scary.”

Limitlessness is scary. Why not spend time writing better songs instead of endlessly tweaking mediocre ones?

Other famous creators have done great things with very little. Quentin Tarantino, writer and director of Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Bastards, and Django Unchained, doesn’t need to operate within constraints these days. He could secure a nine-figure budget if he asked for one. But when he was starting out he had to work with far less. Over his career, the budget for each of his movies has continued to increase. The reviews and box office results don’t go up with the budget. Access to more resources hasn’t increased his creativity at all.

Constraints didn’t hurt him. In the beginning, having one big constraint - budget - increased Tarantino’s creativity. The same is true on teams, and in business. Some constraints - the right ones - lead to more creativity and spur innovation.

“I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.”

- Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon

Why Creativity Is So Hard

When I was kid, my mind nearly exploded when I learned that Earth was a rotating pebble in the Milky Way galaxy. And our galaxy is just a tiny little piece of the universe.

An infinite place was beyond comprehension. Then I learned that space is in fact expanding, becoming vaster, more limitless. It was too much for my brain, and still is.

We live in a world of abundance, yes, but we also live in a world with real constraints. There’s enough to go around, but it’s not infinite. Those constraints help us make decisions, and decisions drive our creativity.

Creativity, by definition, is endless possibility. You can make whatever you want, something that’s never existed before. This endless possibility introduces a tension to every creative endeavor: on the one hand, you can make anything you want; on the other hand, you can only make one thing at a time. Your time and mental energy is a constraint unto itself.

Where will you start?

That’s the first decision you need to make. Answering that simple question by adding a few well-placed constraints will make you more creative than you’ve ever been. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true.

Anything creative requires you to start somewhere, and then make countless decisions along the way. Each of these decisions require cognitive effort, and expending too much of it upfront drains you of the energy to keep going.

Knowing you can only make one thing at a time, it’s essential to reserve your brainpower and creative energy to make that one thing. When you sit down to create, each decision will slowly drain you of your ability to make the next. It’s called decision fatigue, and it’s real.

It works like this:

“The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing.“

Let’s do a thought experiment. You sit down to make something and you use the limitless approach - no constraints whatsoever. You can make anything that comes to mind. You won’t be inhibited by those pesky, self-imposed constraints.

Where do you start? And how many decisions do you have to make in order to reach a starting place?

You have to start somewhere, and that somewhere - your initial “idea” or condition - is the first constraint you’ll impose on yourself. Which is to say something obvious: no matter what constraints you impose upon yourself at the outset, you’ll eventually need a web of constraints in order to make anything. You need a starting point - or starting points, plural. Why not use constraints to set your starting points and instead apply your energy to the thing you’re making?

By defining your constraints upfront, you’ve made at least some of the hard decisions, freeing you up to make many others that descend from the initial constraint. That’s the creative part. The wisdom is in setting boundaries wisely so you can focus on being creative within them.

Constraints Catalyze Creativity

“When constraints are active, the outcomes produced in conceptual combination, in the development of new category instances, and in the production of art are deemed more creative than when constraints are inactive.

-C Page Moreau and Darren W. Dahl

It’s useful to first define our constraints in two separate categories: process constraints, and outcome constraints. I’ve adapted this from a research study on consumer creativity, and unwittingly realized I do both in all of my creative endeavors. I’ll use my podcast, Modern Sales, as an example.

Some constraints affect the creation process, while others will affect the outcome of the what I’m making. Whenever it’s time to create a new podcast episode, I know I have to:

  • Make a podcast episode (outcome)
  • About selling (outcome)
  • With a set format: cold open, content, actions, key takeaways, CTA (process and outcome)
  • That gets drafted in Ulysses, my writing app of choice (process)
  • Recording in my office (process)
  • With a publish date of every Wednesday at midnight (process)

The initial conditions of every podcast episode have been decided long before I sit down to create it. If I took away the outcome constraints, I wouldn’t know if I’m recording a podcast or writing a book. If I didn’t have process constraints, I’d be reinventing a process that could be the same every time.

When most people talk about infinite possibility in creativity, they’re often referring to outcome constraints. They want to make whatever it is that they want to make. That’s fine.

But I urge you to at least place some process constraints on yourself in order to offload some of the decision-making and instead concentrate on the creating. What follows are some constraints I’ve placed on myself and how they’ve helped me constrain the process with limited constraint on the outcome.

Where You’ll Create

Deciding where to create is pretty simple: go where you can quickly and readily be most creative. But it’s not just the physical place - it’s also the environment it provides.

I write at a coffee shop seventy steps from my back door. I do it because it’s always the same. I sit in the same place every day, I write to the same Spotify playlist with the same wireless earbuds, and I drink the same 3 cups of black coffee. Yes, I’m a creature of habit.

Being in this environment signals that it’s time to create. By replicating my environment, I’ve enabled all of my decision-making to be channeled into my creative efforts.

There’s tons of research out there about optimal environments (this paperis worth reading). My advice is to create somewhere where you limit distractions and don’t need to travel too much. Don’t spend time in transit that you could otherwise spend making things. If it’s a room in your house, great. Do that. If it’s in your local library, that works too. Just pick a place.

When You’ll Create and For How Long

Time of day has a large impact on how well we do things. There’s conflicting research about whether it’s better to create in the morning when you’re most rested, or when you’re going on very little sleep. I’m not interested in choosing sides.

There’s a simpler solution: choose a time of day that works for you and stick to it. Some people are shown to be better equipped to create at night, and some are better in the morning. Most of us aren’t too adept at being creative in the afternoon.

I’m most effective in the morning, some days writing as much as 3,000 words in 2 hours. I also know that, by the end of the day, all I want to do is sit on the couch with my wife and watch Netflix.

That’s why I block off at least 2 hours to write every morning, Monday through Saturday. I don’t have to think about when I’ll do it, or at what time, and it also affects the other choices I make: I don’t take calls in the morning, and I have to go to sleep early enough to get at least 6 hours of sleep before writing, though 8 is better.

Introduce a Deadline

“The sure sign of an amateur is he has a million plans and they all start tomorrow.”

- Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro

Deadlines may sound like the opposite of creativity, but they’re extremely useful. There’s research that shows deadlines increase creativity, and it’s definitely true for me. Deadlines make you show up and do the work. Today. Right now.

There’s also a difference between starting and finishing something. All of your creativity will come in phases. Finding and acting upon ideas is what most of us associate with creativity, but most of the work is in figuring out how to improve it. Getting to the finished version - the movie, song, book, or even this article - involves a grueling process of getting started, editing, refining, and refining some more.

Create a deadline for yourself, and stick to it. The higher the stakes of the creative project, the more you might be willing to reassess your deadline. But having the deadline gives you added motivation and willingness to show up and do the work.

Capture Ideas Immediately

Most of us think that ideas are the hardest part of creativity. Ideas are nothing. Fleeting thoughts appear and vanish throughout the day. The hard part is turning an idea into something remarkable.

And since ideas come and go so quickly, you’re unlikely to remember even your best ones. Capture them somewhere, and do it right away. Whatever system you use to capture your ideas, it should always be with you, and it should be immediate and frictionless.

A pen and paper works fine. I use Todoist, my todo app, to capture my ideas. I can even email my ideas into Todoist, and they show up like magic. As time goes on, I have a large running list to draw from, so I’m never low on ideas. If anything, there are far too many things I want to write about, so there’s never an excuse about not knowing what to write.

Limit Your Tools and Stick to Them

I’m guilty of not following this as closely as I should. You got me. I love tech, and I love tools. And even though it’s tempting to focus on tools, they’re not nearly as important as the other factors.

The tools come last because they’re a relatively small part of the process. I’m no luddite. In fact, I love technology. I’m typing this article on a laptop, syncing it to wifi, and publishing on a website that I created. But I do prefer tools that have self-imposed limits so I can maximize the most important part of the process: creating.

For example, the app I use to write is called Ulysses. I love it because its only purpose is writing. There are no formatting tools, or pagination, or comments, or anything else a word processor might have to distract you. It’s just about writing, and that’s a useful constraint.

Do the F***ing Work, Okay?

I love music. It’s my first love. And as a child of the 80s and 90s, I love hip-hop music. I love the loud bass, the hypnotic drum rhythms, the chopped and tweaked samples. I love how a rapper can make reveal complexity in what may seem like a simple situation. Rap can humanize. It can teach us.

“I think I want a job in an office
I am the epitome of what a boss is
A paycheck every two weeks
Over losing out on sleep for the fear that I go starving
And yet I wanna take more risk
I don't wanna take more losses”

- Oddisee, “Contradiction’s Maze” from The Good Fight

In my early 20s I began writing and recording music, teaching myself the fundamentals of audio production along the way. I just wanted to make timeless music, but I wasn’t dedicated. I had talent, but talent isn’t enough.

I never turned pro, as Steven Pressfield puts it. I didn’t treat music like a job. Some days I didn’t feel like it, and didn’t put in the work. What I didn’t know at the time is that the work - the time you allocate and effort you apply - is an inseparable part of the outcome. You can’t create without doing the work.

Some days you won’t feel like it. That’s okay. You’ll be more productive and creative on some days than others. Stick with it. That’s a small process constraint you can adopt right now.

Now go pick a few constraints and make something. Then do it again.