Get Creative with Constraints

by | Nov 11, 2021 | Creativity, News Updates, Resources

Creativity is subtraction text on black backgroundThere’s a quote out there in the Internet world that I’ve pinned and come back to periodically: Creativity is subtraction. This is a concept I find useful to remember in my writing, work and everyday life.

Imposing constraints is one way of prompting subtraction. Constraints involve taking away things we over-rely on, leaving us to cope. Creativity often is the result.

It’s important to point out that this is not always done for happy reasons. Constraints can be seen in dire circumstances. Consider natural disasters or environments with scarce resources. People are faced with extreme constraints and loss of typical resources. They must get creative to survive. The pandemic has prompted much creativity and innovation born out of time and resource constraints. Pay attention and you’ll notice many examples of this playing out in our world.

In Work Life
I focus on process improvement and innovation. We are in constant pursuit of how to simplify things for our customers and teams. One way is to provoke a team’s thinking by asking them to give up something they don’t think can be given up (a system feature, a tool, a process step, a role, etc.). They generate ideas based on those scenarios and it usually leads to interesting possibilities. Sometimes the constraints are real based on budget, policies, laws, loss of customers and such. All of this is about subtraction.

Things to Try:
– Pay attention to “must-haves” and explore whether they really are needed
– Try using time constraints in projects to boost creative responses

In Everyday Life
I’ve written about my ongoing pursuit to subtract time-wasters so my time is being spent on what matters most to me. Read How Would You Use More Time? and An Update on Time Savings about that topic. Other examples of everyday constraints include limited space, money, mobility, energy and interest. I’ve always been fascinated by how Japanese homes, for example, cope with limited space. Super creative solutions!

Things to Try:
– Explore what is creating clutter in your life – physical things, activities, mindsets – without creating value and subtract if you can
– Identify ways you already cope with constraints and celebrate your creativity!

In Writing
How can subtracting unleash creativity?
• It leaves more to the imagination
• It removes distractions and helps you find the heart of your story or character or setting (or all of these)
• It can strengthen the impact
• It makes things simpler, which increases understanding and interest

I recently received a professional critique on one of my picture book manuscripts. It was my own lesson in the value of subtraction. I had gone overboard with the plot and the result was a convoluted story. I took my own advice about subtraction and the story immediately lifted into a more engaging read.

Things to Try:
– Limit word count and see what emerges (often called flash fiction). There’s the famous story of Dr. Seuss (Theo Geisel) accepting the challenge to write a story using no more than 50 different words. The result was Green Eggs and Ham.

– Have you heard of six-word stories? Another great constraint! Here’s a website where people post their stories.  I’ve been jotting down six-word stories about my children’s biography subject Horace Mann as a constraint to help bring his story into focus. Two recent examples:
• No? Or not yet? We’ll see.
• Shoddy schools, no rules. Change’s coming.

– Other ways to use constraints in your writing?
• Take away something your beloved character might rely on and see how he/she copes
• Create a law that something important is banned
• Remove a common element in a setting (sidewalks, streets, etc.)
• Block one of the character’s senses

You get the idea. What can you constrain in your current writing project to boost the level of creativity?

More Reading
Want to learn more about the idea of constraints? Here are a few articles to explore:
How Constraints Force Your Brain to be More Creative
The Benefits of Constrained Writing (with methods to try)
Spark Your Creativity by Thinking Inside the Box
How Constraints Inspire Creative Thinking

What examples of constraints have you noticed or experienced? Or things you’re trying to boost creativity in the arenas where you need it? Let me know!