Forget freedom! How restrictions help creativity

Writer Michelle Lucado explains how to frame yourself to be more productive


Footage from the film Birdman

There is a common opinion that the more opportunities we have, the more creative our work will be. However, studies show that everything can be just the opposite. When people have fewer opportunities and are not overwhelmed by the paradox of choice in terms of creativity, innovative ideas appear much more often.


The study, published in the Harvard Business Review, said: "We analyzed 145 empirical studies on the effects of restrictions on creativity and innovation and found that individuals, teams, and organizations equally benefit from healthy dose restrictions."



In this context, my own periodic paralysis, when I look at the gaping void of the computer screen for a long time, does not look so meaningless. Maybe I just need some instructions.


For a writer whose work is to work with constant creativity, this is useful information. A few weeks ago I decided to experiment with different conditions and limitations in my writing. I also applied restrictions to my other creative projects (I still choreograph and make films). Most of these limitations have helped me produce better content.


The restriction may apply to the process or the project as a whole. For example, the restriction in clothing was that I could only dress in neutral colors. The artistic limitation is in the use of only recycled materials and paint. It may seem that this limits creativity, but in my case, on the contrary, allowed the creative flow to flow freely.


Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice writes: "Learning to choose is difficult. Learning to choose competently is even more difficult. And learning to choose in a world of limitless possibilities is even more difficult, perhaps too difficult." So reducing creativity from an unlimited number to (for example) 20 frees the brain from a huge number of choices.


I have experimented with various limitations in writing, choreography, and filmmaking. This helped me realize that the main goal is to constantly create something new. Not one perfect thing. And in trying to solve the problem of the restrictions that I imposed, I found that I was less judgmental about my work in the process.


Below I talk about three types of limitations that I used in different situations. I share them in the hope that they will help you awaken creativity.


Time limits



Now I am writing this article in a time-limited environment. My husband and son are away on business (usually it takes about 90 minutes) and I plan to finish the first sketch by the time they get back. It will be imperfect and it will need to be edited a lot, but it will be written.


People (like me) who are prone to perfectionism can work on the project forever, constantly changing and refining something. Some tasks are simply impossible to complete. I realized that when I ask myself a certain amount of time for creativity, I work much more productively. It helps in all my creative endeavors, both in choreography and in film production.


Obviously, the quality of fast-finished projects is not always the highest, but it is easier for me to feel the flow when I devote a continuous and limited amount of time to make the first sketch of a story, dance, or filming schedule.


In addition, due to time constraints in choreography, I had to just do something. When I gave myself an hour to create a minute piece of dance, I got stuck at one point trying to find the perfect transitional step. Because of the lack of time, I just chose a step, even if it, in my opinion, was not the best, and moved on. When all the work was finished, I went back to that piece and corrected the awkward movement.


Limiting resources


I have a favorite project that I give to my students every autumn. They must create a short film with only two actors in a certain place in one day. They complain, "But we need a third person to be a waiter in a restaurant!" "Our story won't play out if we don't take it off in the morgue!" "Can I shoot one quick scene tomorrow?" "Just do it."


By the time their work is finished, their creativity is off the scale. In the same living room with two participants, they make films about zombies, spies, doomed lovers, aliens, sisters, enemies, and two people who were the same person - all in 24 hours.


This restriction can be applied to many creative directions and just to live. It turned out that I can be very creative in playing with a child if I decide to play only with colored paper. No scissors, no shiny glue, no markers, no stickers. (By the way, it can work when planning dinner only from tomato sauce, rice, and eggplant.)


A 2015 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that when faced with resource constraints, study participants were more creative in problem-solving. It's as if research gave them the freedom to use their opportunities creatively because life made them. My students were making groundbreaking spy movies with two actors on set in the living room because they had no other choice. And they were as fantastic as my impromptu dinners.


Restrictions on topics


As a freelance writer, I can usually write about anything I want. As Barry Schwartz noted, sometimes it can be a problem. So I decided to limit my writing to thematic conditions.


I invited my friends to offer me themes for texts. They were only allowed to give me nouns, and then I formulated everything else. God, they loved the mission. I've got topics like Sex and the City, Lamps, and Roomba. And I wrote articles on each of them (including an article about how I invited friends to share ideas with me).



The interesting thing about this is that as soon as I started thinking about one of the given topics, immediately there was a way to make it an interesting article (or at least I thought so). I wrote about how I stopped being like one of the heroines of Sex and the City and started to look like another, I wrote about the smells associated with sales, and how Roomba teaches me to entrepreneurship. That was great! I used my creative energy to turn the Roomba theme into a fully implemented article.


I believe that this concept can be applied to almost any other creative endeavor. An interior designer can create a desert-style room or a Birdman movie, and the cameraman can only use one type of camera for the entire film. In both cases, limitations improve creative results.


Creativity is an individual process, but you can use limitations to find new ways to share your creativity with the world. By putting time, resources, or topics (or maybe all three at once!), you can go beyond the usual limits, do something that was not possible before.

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