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Everyone is always looking for a way to conjure the ever-elusive creative muse. Can you evoke creativity on a whim? Is it possible to turn on creativity like a faucet?

Maybe not quite. But creativity is something we can facilitate. Creativity comes when there is an environment that can foster it. We must encourage creativity by setting up the right context.

You might initially think that creativity comes from freedom. But when there is an abundance of possibility and a wealth of options, creativity is decreased. What we need is restriction to challenge our brains. It’s constraint that breeds creativity—not freedom.

In my last newsletter, I broached the notion of limiting choice. In this podcast episode, we dive even deeper into exploring the how and why of reducing choice for the purpose of boosting creativity.

We look at the places where we are most creative, how those contexts look, and how we can create similar environments in the future.

Show Notes
  • Followup:
  • 00:40 Recapping the adventures of my west coast vacation.
  • 12:25 The launch of my new website redesign.
  • Where am I most creative?
  • 14:27 It’s usually the times where we have a spark. A direction. An idea. A context. That’s not to say where that spark comes from, but when you have it, that’s when you are inspired. You have an idea for something. A certain initial direction. The specific nature of that idea creates a kind of box. By “box” I mean constraints, limitations or restrictions.
  • 15:59 You have to define the box within which you can be creative because creativity feeds on constraints. You only have to think creatively if you need to get out of a tough situation, and the situation is only tough if there are constraints.
  • 16:26 Q: “How do I be creative?”
  • 16:32 A: You need to have restraints. If you have a wide open plain of possibilities and choices, it’s too much pressure.
  • 17:03 Constraints are often there and you’re just not seeing them. You might think you have more freedom than you really do because you haven’t put forth the effort to discover the constraints.
  • 17:17 It can be scary to impose limitations when you have an illusion of freedom. It feels like that freedom will bring you creativity, but really it’s hindering it. It actually promotes indecision.
  • 18:15 Ben: “Just like with kids and 9 buckets of toys to choose from: too many options promotes indecision. They argue and fuss and fight over the choices. Compare that to providing them just 2 options: it becomes a much easier choice.”
  • What do those contexts look like?
  • 19:52 The places where you’re creative are where there are restrictions on what you can and can’t do. When the possibilities are wide open, it’s too much pressure to create something great—it’s too much freedom.
  • Freedom does not facilitate creativity—constraint does.

  • 20:28 Scenario: Instead of receiving a blank sheet of paper and a bucket of drawing tools with the instruction “Make something cool,” what if you received:
    • 2 Sharpened Crayons: A Red and a Blue
    • 1 Black, Fine-Tipped Marker
    • 1 Sheet of Paper With a 4″ Diameter Circle
    • A Scene: Imminent Car Crash
    • 5 minutes
  • 21:50 Now, your mind is spinning! You have a challenge. You start to envision the look of anticipation that’s on the driver’s face who is about to collide with this other vehicle. You have to consider scale and composition because the canvas is irregularly shaped and small. You have the limitations of the two colors you were given, but maybe you can crosshatch some shading with the black marker, you think.
  • 22:34 When you have a context—constraints and limitations—within those confines, you will be stimulated to be creative.
  • 23:38 Examples of how you can impose some limitations:
    • Limit your tools
    • Limit your medium
    • Limit your time
    • Limit your context
    • Limit your audience
    • Limit your objectives
  • 24:09 Put another way:
    • What kinds of tools are you using?
    • What mediums are you working with?
    • How long do you have to do this?
    • Where are you doing it?
    • Who is it for?
    • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • 24:24 Ben: “That’s a pretty complex box.”
  • 24:26 Sean: It really seems like it! But I don’t think you can go too far. People are often concerned that they might be restricting something too much, but it’s really a good thing. You want it to be really, really, tight—to the point where you feel like you’re bursting at the seams. Remember: you have to have a box in order for there to be outside-the-box thinking.
  • 24:55 For instance, with comic panels, they have boxes for each panel of the comic. Often, the artist will break outside the panels, or have one character jump from one panel to another or stick slightly outside of it.
  • By restricting your boundaries, you enable yourself to think outside the box and draw outside the lines. That is where creativity comes from.

  • How can I create these spaces?
  • 28:05 The key is limiting. You want there to be a limit. There are two extremes:
    1. You feel like there’s not enough room.
    2. You feel like there’s too much room.
  • 28:24 In the first case, you want to carve out a small space. We’re not just talking about physical space, but we’re talking about any kind of confinement—having too much or too little.
  • 29:00 On the other hand, if you have way too much room, you have to confine it. You have to confine a large space into a small one when there’s too much possibility. If a design you’re working on doesn’t have enough constraints on it, you’re going to feel overwhelmed. Do you have a project right know where you’re thinking, “Man, I don’t know what direction to take this. It could go so many different ways!” That means you don’t have enough restriction.
  • 29:33 Ben does a picture-in-your-mind illustration of a beautiful library scene.
  • What does reducing choice do for me?
  • 32:54 Reducing choice frees up focus. You need focus to be creative.
  • 33:05 Sean: So Ben, I get a lot of flack for this… for every restaurant I go to, I have a specific thing that I always get. But having limited choice frees up focus for me. My brain power is completely free to think about and tackle whatever other challenge I want. It’s not having to decide between too many choices.
  • 34:48 Ben: “Yeah, I always do this thing at the restaurant where I think that I’m going to get something different, so I look around at the other stuff and then when the waiter asks me what I want, I panic and I tell them what I always get.”
  • 35:05 It’s kind of like the getting out of bed thing. People say “Yeah, yeah, I get it, I need to wake up early and write every day, but how do I do it?” And you can say, “Well, set an alarm, and get some good sleep, and maybe write down 3 things you want to accomplish the next day.” But inevitably, the more you distill down the argument, it always comes down to choice. “Yeah, yeah, I get it’s a choice, but when my alarm goes off and I’m laying in bed, how I do get out of bed?” At some point there’s no further distilling it down: you just have to get out of bed.
  • 35:29 The thing is, you’re making this into an array of choices when you shouldn’t be. You’re saying, “Should I get out of bed? What if I don’t? What if I wait a little bit?” This doesn’t work. It has to just be a thing that you do. Just like you wake up and use the bathroom, brush your teeth (hopefully), make coffee—whatever. Those are just things that you do.
  • 35:51 I wake up, my alarm goes off at 5:30am and I wake up. I get up. That’s what I do. What this does is it frees up your mental capacity. It gives you focus because it’s a thing that you do. You’re not thinking, “Well, could I get this done later in the day? What if I hit snooze? Maybe I work better at night?” No, you wake up because it’s what you do. Then you have all of your focus left to do the thing that you need to do: be creative. You’ve removed choice from the equation.
  • 36:22 It’s like when you’re on an airplane without wifi: You’re not going to get notifications on your phone because you’re 36,000ft in the air. There’s no choice of checking Facebook, or getting on Twitter, or browsing Reddit. It limits you. If you want to write or draw, you experience a unique kind of freedom because you do not have the option of looking at your notifications or reading feeds.
  • 37:36 Keep limiting. Limiting, limiting, limiting. Look at monasteries. You don’t have to think about what clothes you’re going to wear—you’re going to wear the same thing as everyone else. Everything is limited. It’s not “What food do you want?” it’s “Eat your bowl of rice.” They’re limiting so they can focus. They’re giving themselves focus by reducing the amount of choice they have.
  • This is where it’s counterintuitive: you don’t really think that less freedom results in greater creativity, but it does. Reducing choice actually gives you more freedom within a certain context.

  • 39:23 Ben: “There’s also the question of discipline. ‘Do I have the self-discipline needed?’ If I’m not disciplined enough to uphold the needed constraints, then I can fall right back into indecision and stagnancy.”
  • 39:46 Sean: This goes back to the episode we had on dealing with lack of motivation (Related: e049 Defeating Lack of Motivation With a Vengeance).
  • 39:51 There’s all kinds of productivity hacks and tricks and methods for trying to motivate yourself, but it really does come down to choice. Let’s say you want to work out consistently so you get a gym buddy. You can arrange it so that he is your accountability partner, and he’s expecting you to pick him up outside his house at 5am to go to the gym. If you don’t show up, you’re letting him down and he woke up super early for nothing. Is this a motivator? Sure! But you still have a choice when you’re in your warm bed. As incentivized as you might be, it always comes down to a choice you have to make.
  • 43:13 Commit to showing up first, and then the motivation will come. You’re wondering, “Where does that motivation come from?” You find that motivation by showing up.
  • When you first show up, there’s not going to be motivation. It’s a choice. It’s always a choice.

    But the thing you can do is say: “Alright, I’m choosing this week—motivation or not—I’m choosing to wake up at 5:30am every day, Monday–Friday. Just this week. I’m going to choose to do that just this week.”

    “I’m going to put out a new piece of art, every single day, just this week.”

    Forget motivation—it’s a choice. Just choose to do that. Now that you start showing up, that’s where the motivation comes from. Eventually it becomes a habit and then it’s just a thing that you do—that’s the place you want to be.

  • How can I reduce choice?
  • 45:17 Lately, I’ve enjoyed concluding podcasts and newsletters with some questions to help stimulate your thoughts and get your brain running so you can generate ideas. Here’s a brain dump of ideas for several different kinds of people or categories of pursuits:
    • Designers
      • If you’re designing a website and you feel like it could go a bunch of different ways, you want to find more constraints. These could either be client-imposed restrictions from your preliminary discussions, or self imposed restrictions. How can you drill down further and more specifically in places like Medium, Audience, or Existing brand requirements? Maybe limit yourself in areas of style (e.g. no rounded corners, only flat colors, only gradients, etc.). Maybe only use elements that render beautifully for HiDPI screens, such as vectors and type.
    • Artists
      • Instead of a big, blank piece of paper, draw a small box on it (kind of like the comic panel). Give yourself some confines. Maybe draw the outlines of a big word and whatever kind of art you’re doing, you have to do that within the shape of the letters. Give yourself some sort of restriction. Maybe that’s limiting yourself to one tool, one medium, or a single color. Add as many limitations as possible until you feel like you can’t add anymore and you’re bursting at the seams—that’s where you’re going to find your creative breakthrough.
    • Podcasters
      • Put limitations on yourself. Maybe it’s time, maybe it’s topic. If it’s time, that might mean asking your interviewees less questions—which results in them having to be really good ones! If it’s topical, try limiting yourself to a series. It forces you to stay on a certain topic and be creative within it. Picture a very specific person this episode is for. Talk to them.
    • Writers
      • Pick a subject, or a series of subjects that are in line. Maybe pick a max length, like 1,000 words. If that’s too much, go smaller. Limit yourself. Write for one specific person.
    • Musicians
      • One chord progression. Whenever I just sit down at the piano randomly, I usually don’t get my best stuff. My best work is usually after hearing a nugget of something from another song and rushing to the piano to riff off of that. Or put another way: play within the confines of it.
    • Engineers
      • Focus on one problem. Solve one problem. Get rid of the extra features. Get rid of the bells and whistles. Make it lightweight, small, and simple. Simplify. You can go from there, but limit yourself now. That’s where you’re going to be creative. That’s where you will innovate. That’s where your breakthroughs will come from.
    • App Developers
      • Make it for one platform at first. Don’t think too big. Just one platform. Maybe one device even! Start simple and restrict yourself. If it’s an iPhone app for instance, maybe use only the default iOS styles. How can you make this work with the most limited palette?