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Why you should think inside the box

One simple strategy to make you more creative and productive.

There’s one simple hack for being more creative and productive. A small hack that will not only make you a more creative person, but also boost the quality of your work immensely, and it doesn’t involve doing more work, in fact it involves doing less work.

In school, we got a lot of questions that were like: Within 500 words, explain the… or something like that. I remember thinking that 500 words were too less to explain something properly, in hindsight I ended up getting more marks for questions like that as compared to the questions where I was given free reign to write. When you write something, you always have a goal in mind. Sometimes the goal is to communicate, sometimes it’s to explain something, etc. Different types of writing require different types of writing styles, usually depending on the reader, if you’re writing to your boss then you’ll probably cut out all the frills and get straight to the point, if you’re writing to a friend then you’d probably spend more time on conveying emotion, than information, on a different tangent, if you’re writing an article or something to convey information, your goal is to provide information under a specific context.

No matter what you’re writing, it is my belief that it can benefit with some sort of constraint.

A constraint is a state of being restricted, limited or confined within prescribed bounds.

A constraint can make you more creative, more productive and make it easier to do quality work at a quicker rate. I know what you’re thinking, "Doesn’t creativity require free and unrestricted thinking?" Yes, yes it does, but how many times have you stared at a blank screen, watching the cursor blink – trying to think what to write, or how many times have you scrolled through Pinterest searching for something to paint, and gotten even more confused because of the large number of options. Putting up a constraint doesn’t limit your creativity, it helps you reign it.

Think of all the possible creative ideas as grass in a huge field, and your creativity is a horse that’s running through this field, searching for the best plot of grass. If you don’t set up a constraint, the horse will run wild, being unable to focus on a single plot, because a better plot may always be available. If you set up a fence (constraint), it will help keep your horse within a specific area, it can cover the ground quicker, finding the best plot of grass quickly, and start eating.

Types of Constraints:

Time Constraints

Time constraints refer to deadlines, and other such things. These constraints create something called ‘Time Preassure’, this refers to the sense of risk created by a limitation on the time available.

Resource Constraints

These refer to constraints on the inputs that can be devoted to a project. May include stuff like financial constraints, tool constraints, etc. These force the person to ‘think around’ the limitations and find innovative solutions to the same – literally forcing creativity.

Standardized Processes

These refer to ways of working, usually teams may have a set of procedures that need to be followed in order to structure and record work in a better way. Further, there may be institution specific problem solving or brainstorming methods that reduce the time spent on thinking of topics, positively impacting creativity.

Why Creative Limitations Work:

Creative Limitation and Flow

‘Flow’ is the psychological state during which we feel our best and perform our best. It’s a state of rapt attention and absorption in the task at hand, when everything else fades away. During flow, all physical and mental processes are heightened. Creativity and Productivity has been proven to increase during flow. The way that flow ties into creative limitations is because flow has ‘triggers’ that are basically external conditions which facilitate entering the flow state. Here are some triggers that directly relate to creative constraints:

  • Risk: Risk refers to the possibility of a negative consequence if a task is not completed. Time pressure is form of risk that is created through time constraints.
  • Clear Goals: Constraints help you set clearer goals because they drastically reduce the paralysis that comes from having too much to choose from.
  • Challenge to Skill Ratio: Resource limitations may pose challenges to creatives, and force them to apply their existing skills in a better way. This usually requires intense focus and focus leads to flow which leads to better creativity.
  • Creativity or Pattern Recognition: This is when your mind is able to recognize similar things. Its basically your mind saying ‘Hey, I’ve done this before, let me do the thing that worked then’. This helps you draw connections between past and present knowledge, creating a network of ideas that can help you be more creative. It also brings me to my next point:

Making a Niche

  • If you’re a creator then you’ve probably heard the advice of building a niche in which you can make your own community. This is great advice, and directly co-relates with what we’re discussing right now. Having a niche does three things:
    1. It helps genuinely interested people find and follow you
    2. It helps you develop a theme and brand around yourself
    3. It helps you know where to start whenever you embark on a new objective
  • Making a great niche may be more complex than that, but it helps you concentrate on a subject or even topic that you are passionate and knowledgeable about, and the best way to set up a niche is to set up a constraint around the subject you want to talk about. Setting up a niche also makes you more accountable to your community.

So the next time you want to do something creative, and can’t think of where to start, set up a constraint. You can do this by:

  • Committing to a schedule or setting a deadline -> reducing the time you can spend on topic choosing and devoting more to actual creation.
  • Following a strict process or limiting the number of tools you can use
  • Setting a word, time or some other kind of limit (Eg. This article should be less than 1000 words, or, This painting should only have 3 things in the foreground, etc.)
  • Letting go of perfectionism, embracing rough corners and experimental stuff to help you grow and learn

I hope this post brought you value and helped you in some way, share your take-aways and experiments with this idea in the comments below. If you think this post deserves more attention then please consider sharing it with your friends and subscribing to this blog. Next post in two weeks. Have a great day!

By the way, I’m now on Twitter @Whereiscalypso, I post quotes from books, articles and podcasts about productivity and creativity, along with tips and advice from time to time.

3 replies on “Why you should think inside the box”

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