Why limitations can lead to greater creativity


Six strings, 12 notes…what more do you need?

My guitar teacher, Matt, likes to remind me that there are only 12 notes in music—A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G and G#. Millions of songs and compositions, from hip-hop to classical, and they all are built on those same 12 notes.

He often will say that having fewer choices actually helps musicians focus and be more creative. He likens it to Italian cooking, where you have pasta, sauce and cheese, but those ingredients can be combined in many different ways. Too many ingredients, he says, gives you too many choices.

It seems counterintuitive, but you can increase your creativity by decreasing your options. Innovation often comes when there are constraints on our time, budget or resources.

So if you are struggling to come up with a new idea or an innovative business solution, maybe your thinking is too open-ended. The sky’s the limit sounds good in theory, but in practice we need boundaries and parameters.

You’ve probably admired artists who work in just one medium or use a certain technique or style. Those limitations seem to bring out their talent.

Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) was once challenged by his editor to write a children’s book using fewer than 50 different words. Guess which famous Dr. Seuss book was the result of that challenge? If you’re thinking Green Eggs and Ham, you’re right!

An even more extreme example attributed to Ernest Hemingway can’t be verified, but it’s still a great story. Hemingway was supposedly having lunch one day with some fellow authors when he boasted that he could write a complete story using just six words. The other writers scoffed, but he bet them $10 each that he could do it. After they put their money on the table, he wrote these words on a napkin: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Needless to say, he collected his money.

Why does less freedom often lead to greater creativity? One reason is that constraints force us to look for unconventional ways around our limitations, and that gets our creative juices flowing. On the other hand, too much freedom tends to make us uncreative.

So try these little tricks if your well has gone dry:

Self-imposed deadlines. Writers know all about deadlines, and often that is what finally spurs them to finish a project that has been languishing. You can do the same thing to yourself by setting a timer or giving your team what seems like a totally unrealistic deadline. You’d be surprised how much you can get done and how creative the results are.

Low-budget. Lack of money is generally considered a negative, but a small budget can force you to innovate. Think about successful low-budget films that were made at a fraction of what they eventually grossed such as Rocky, Halloween, Napoleon Dynamite, Juno or Slumdog Millionaire. Remember The Blair Witch Project? It had a budget of only $60,000, but it grossed nearly $250 million!

Word limits. I’ve already given examples from Dr. Seuss and Hemingway, but consider the rules for haiku or that Twitter limits you to 140 characters. These limitations force you to be clever and can be applied to other content and design projects.

Extreme focus. Rather than trying to multi-task, go to the other extreme. Remove all distractions and force yourself to concentrate on only one, single thing for a half-hour or so.

Better brainstorming. Instead of a blank slate, give yourself a reference point, even if it’s not where you want to end up. One good example is to consider pitches that already have some traction. You can debate their merits, and in the process come up with better ideas.

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