Creativity Under Constraints
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Creativity Under Constraints

Creativity Under Constraints

In one of my recent posts, Conquer Analysis Paralysis, I explored the notion of having too many choices and not being able to make any kind of decision due to complete overwhelm.  I briefly touched on a way to reduce that overwhelm by assigning constraints to a project.  Since I wrote that post, I’ve discovered quite a bit of research that points to how much more creative we can be when we have limitations, whether they’re material, financial, time, space, or any combination thereof.  It seems counterintuitive.  Even thinking about the word “constraint” can conjure a myriad of negative connotations.  I have always thought that if the sky is the limit, we can stretch our creative wings as far as they’ll go, but apparently the truth is that constraints are good for our creativity.  

What’s a constraint, exactly?

You’ve probably read dictionary definitions in many of my posts because I have a researcher brain and I like to start with a source of truth.  However, in this case, I think a constraint could be many different things in the context of making, especially to different people.  For some, money might not be a limitation because there’s plenty available for supplies and space.  To others, money might be the first thing that keeps us from being able to make what we want to make.  Likewise, maybe feeling like we lack enough time prevents some of us from making when others are time affluent.  Here’s a list of things off the top of my head that I think can present themselves as roadblocks or limitations when we’re trying to make and be creative:

  • Money (Can I afford this?)
  • Time (Can I squeeze this into an already full schedule?)
  • Space (Do I have room to do this?)
  • Support (Do the people around me get what I’m doing and encourage me?)
  • Materials (Do I have/can I get materials? If so, do I have the right amount, color, type, etc.?)
  • Age (Am I too old for this or is it already too late for me to learn/do it?)
  • Access (to classes, instructions, space, places to obtain materials, etc.)

What other constraints have you all encountered?  Feel free to comment if there’s something I’ve overlooked.  In the words of Mr. Rogers, if it’s mentionable it’s manageable!

We’ve probably all encountered at least one of these listed issues in our creative efforts.  Any one on its own can be frustrating and disheartening, but if the research (I’ve listed resource links at the end of this article) is accurate, we should somehow be able to leverage that frustration as a force to be more creative.

Now how do we take this annoying, possibly discouraging thing and turn it into something useful and good?

That’s a great question, and one I’ve long been pondering because there’s not an easy answer.  Maybe if we frame it as a “what if” kind of question we can sort it out.  For instance, “What if I made something with only what I already have?”  Or “What if I were to take a painting class even though I’m 74?”  Or “What if I were to ask my partner/roommate if they can help me clear a small space where I can sew or write?”  Or “What if I were to look somewhere like Freecycle or Craigslist for cheap/free supplies?”

Thinking about the niggling of a possibility can sometimes immediately spark follow on thoughts, like “Gosh, it doesn’t cost anything to screen shop, so why not check out free resources?”  Or “It can’t hurt to ask for help—the worst someone can say is no or tell me it’s a silly idea.”  Or “If I’m the oldest one in a class, that must make me the most experienced.”  Or “Wow, I’d forgotten I had this cool thing in my stash!”  At that “why not?” point, our minds are completely open—there isn’t a “no” lying in wait to sabotage our ideas.  We’re already thinking about the infinite possibilities, which is the magical Narnia passage to our creativity, the proverbial wardrobe into our fantasies.  Doesn’t that sound wonderful and amazing?  Are you willing to try it?  I certainly am!

I’m going to challenge myself in the coming months to assign at least one constraint to every project.  That seems manageable, right?  I don’t get to sew as much as I’d like to, but I wonder what might happen if I set a 20-minute timer each time I do sew.  How much could I get done if I know that’s all the time I’m giving myself?  Or limit myself to using only fabric and patterns I currently have at the writing of this post with no “but I really needed it” shopping exceptions.  What could I make with some of that yardage that’s been languishing in my closet for years?  I’d love to find out.

How about you?  What might you do to push your creative boundaries inside specific parameters?  I’d love to find that out, too.  Your mission, shall you choose to accept it, is to figure out what roadblocks consistently come up in your making journey and figure out how to work alongside them, how to use them as your secret weapons for genius creativity.  I’d wager we might all surprise ourselves.  At least I hope so!  I invite you all to tell us about your adventures and I’ll do the same.  Come along with me—this could be fun!

Research and Resources

(NOTE:  I selected original academic sources of truth that most of the other articles I found have cited)

Creativity and Innovation Under Constraints:  A Cross-Disciplinary Integrative Review

Creating When You Have Less:  The Impact of Resource Scarcity on Product Use Creativity

Learned Variability (This paper requires viewers to log in and answer a couple of questions for the download–it’s free and legit.  Just make sure you scroll all the way to the bottom of the “upgrade now” page to the “No thanks, just let me download” link)

Beyond Big and Little: The Four C Model of Creativity

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