creative limitations

Going in for the creative kill is easier if you have boundaries. (See #2 below)

This is the story of creative limitations and an M&M dispenser.

I was a K-12 art teacher at a public school, and it was the end of the year. The middle school students weren’t interested in doing much other than plan for summer vacation. I had a cupboard full of partially used art supplies, lots of scraps of materials and items from the year’s art projects, and restless kids on my hands. I’d finished up my lesson plans, and had a week left before school was over.

“We are going to do an exercise in limitation,” I said.

I had a table in the center of the classroom piled with bits of paper, popsicle sticks, string, plastic, mat board, glue, paints, cloth, and a mish-mash of items. I’d basically cleaned out the cupboard and found quite a collection of seemingly useless garbage. “Your final project will be made out of just what you see here. Nothing else.”

I gave them the specifics: they had to create something that had the potential to make noise, include movement of some sort, and had good design qualitites (this was an art class, after all). On the final day of class, they would demonstrate their “machine.” It didn’t matter how they approached this project; I had no limitations on size or complexity or even simplicity. The only rule was that they had to make it here, in the classroom, with nothing but what was on that table, and they could not use more than five types of items. They could not bring in anything from home or outside the classroom.

There were groans and “that’s impossible!” and I waved my hand and told them to get started. And then a voice called out from the back. “Miss Neidlinger, you have to do it to. It’s only fair.”

I immediately regretted the arbitrary limitations I had created.

1. Creative Limitations Give You More Time

For content creators, the main limitation you face with your content is that of time. You have deadlines, and feel the pain that comes from struggling within the boundary of time. In fact, if time is such an onerous boundary, why would I suggest you should have more boundaries?

This is why: creating arbitrary limitations will give you more time.

I watched as the students worked on their projects. We only had a few days, and I saw how, once they got past the horror of limitation, they actually worked much faster than they had on other projects. There was no distraction: this was all they had to work with, there was a specific outcome expected.

Without limitations, there is too much too choose from. You waste time trying to figure out what to use and where to go. Boundaries give you that time back by doing that for you and letting you get down to the business of creating.

It’s like having a niche blog: you put stringent restrictions on what you’ll blog about and maybe it isn’t as much fun all  of the time, but you don’t have to waste time finding focus. You know what you’ll be writing about, you know what to think about, you know what kinds of ideas you should focus on. Instead of the whole universe of ideas to consider, you have a few in your hand.

Are you lacking in boundaries for your content creation? Set up some limitations on yourself. Editorial calendars, with their advance planning, are a kind of limitation. Go even further. Maybe you’ll want to:

  • Set up content limitations. Only write how-to posts on Mondays, or base a post around a photo you took this week. Open a random book, like George Harrison, and use a random phrase to build a piece of content on.
  • Set up work-time limitations. Restrict the amount of time you work on specific projects. Our bodies work in ultradian rhythms, and after 90 minutes of work on the same thing, we max out on doing our best work.

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2. Creative Limitations Give You More Freedom

Watching the students work on the project was a great deal of fun as a teacher. I’d already experienced enough “this is dumb” commentary throughout the year’s previous art projects, but this restrictive project seemed to have really gotten them excited.

Though they’d never admit it, it was clear they were having much more fun with this project that had a specifically defined outcome than they did facing a blank piece of paper with endless possibilities.

While studying art history in college, I was much less interested in extremely modern art than I was in older art. When all the boundaries and rules were removed and “anything goes” was the name of the game, I felt that the art suffered. The older art, still working in the constructs of even a vague sense of realism, space, color, etc. was much more intriguing. The artists used the rules and boundaries and were able to–if you took the time to really dig into a painting or sculpture–achieve something quite complex and multi-layered. They pushed those boundaries to the limit and came out with a polished diamond.

How is it that having a boundary makes you freer, creatively? I often think of it as a pasture at the edge of a dangerous cliff.

When there is a fence in place, you can freely explore the pasture, not having to think about falling off the edge. You know that the fence will keep you from going over, and you are more free with that boundary in place. Without the fence, you would huddle towards the middle of the pasture, always making sure you didn’t get too close to the edge. You might explore a little bit, but you keep it close and safe.

You will explore closer to the edge creatively and push the limits if you have a boundary in place than you would if you had no boundaries at all.

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3. Limitations Force You To Create

One of the biggest disappointments I’d seen that year in my art classes was students who turned in lackluster work when I knew they had so much more ability. The broader and bigger and more wide-open the project, the more often they seemed to leave it to the last or never really put in an effort. When I finally gave them a very restrictive project, they jumped on it. I was extremely impressed with what I was seeing the students create.

The fewer resources or options you have, the more you are forced to actually be creative. You have to come up with something that isn’t the first and most obvious solution. You have to be creative to solve the problem; you can’t fall back on laziness or whatever is easiest.

The most terrifying day in college? When it was my turn to give an impromptu speech in speech class. Biggest feeling of satisfaction and intellectual rush in college? Same day.

There is something incredibly invigorating in facing down the challenge of a complex problem, extreme limitations, and finding that your creative pump can, indeed, be primed into action.

  • It strengthens your creative muscles. You learned you can do it and how to get the creativity flowing. Each time you do it, it isn’t as hard.
  • You learn how to do it again. Once you’ve solved an impossible problem with limited options, you start to learn the process to get things going again. It’s not as scary, because you know you did it before, and know how you got going. You create a system.

Necessity is the mother of invention. – English ProverbClick To Tweet

Those catchy and endearing Dr. Seuss books? They were written with restrictions.

Green Eggs And Ham was written on a bet that Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) couldn’t write a book using no more than 50 words. The result? He won the bet, of course, and wrote a fun book that children still love to read.

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Creative Limitations Have So Many Benefits

Limitations, though they may feel unpleasant in their restriction, have so many valuable benefits beyond what they can do for your creativity.

  1. Limitations reveal true solutions. Without a clear boundary to define the problem, we can’t be sure our solution is actually a solution.
  2. Limitations prevent stagnation. With clearly defined boundaries, you don’t waste your time and effort on peripheral content and ideas that you are going to cut later. While it’s hard to hit that 2,000+ word mark in your long-form blog post, and it might be easier to stretch the boundaries to get more words, sticking to the boundary of what your blog post is supposed to be about makes for a tight bit of writing instead of a sloppy, wandering tome.
  3. Limitations give actionable items. While brainstorming might not always be the best idea, setting boundaries during such sessions isn’t a bad idea. One of the weaknesses of brainstorming is the lack of boundaries, but what if the group had to collaborate on an idea with in a strict set of guidelines? Re-watch that Apollo 13 video again. With boundaries, you get less fluff and peripheral, and more ideas that you could actually take action on.

So. Are you feeling stuck? Stuck in your writing, your job, your life?

Reduce the options you place before yourself. Get rid of some of the resources you have. Narrow down your choices. Now solve that problem with what’s left.

Perhaps, with creativity on the decline, introducing limitations and providing fewer options is something we all ought to be considering. Less is more. Having fewer options is better.

If you don’t understand your limitations you won’t achieve much in your life. – Kevin CostnerClick To Tweet

Epilogue: The Art Project

You may be wondering how that art project worked out.

The students amazed me. We had a fun final class period with each student demonstrating their machine. They were so proud and excited with what they’d made, more than any other project. They’d surmounted a tough challenge.

Of course, for my machine, I broke the rules a wee tiny bit.

creative limitations

I had made an M&M dispenser.

The candy would sit in a well in the top, and there was a handle you pulled to release the candy into a sloped chute. In the chute, I’d glued down wooden beads so that the candy would ping back and forth as they flowed down. The candies created the movement and noise as they traveled down the chute.

After I presented my machine and explained how the noise and movement would work, I pulled out two large bags of M&M candies (a material that was not from the resources table), poured some in the top, and let each student take a handful from the bottom as the candies bounced and pinged their way down the chute.

That was a pretty decent payoff.