Get In a Box: Thoughts on Constraints and Creative Work

It should be easier than ever to make stuff.

Free (or relatively low cost) tools abound. Places to share or sell the final product of your labours are in no short supply either. Oh, and feedback? That can be almost instantaneous, if you want it to be.

So why does it still seem so damn hard to see creative endeavours through to completion?

You may be grappling with the Resistance—that insidious inner beast that halts creative momentum in its tracks. Steven Pressfield says that thwarting the Resistance can be as simple as showing up everyday and doing the work. But that’s easier said than done, of course.

Where do you start? How do you start? What platform or medium do you use? So many choices! It can be paralyzing at times.

So put yourself in a box. I started thinking about constraints and their paradoxical ability to propel creative work forward while listening to a recent episode of The Big Web Show where Jeffrey Zeldman prodded guest Mike Monteiro on how he overcame a ten-year bout of artist’s block.

The emergent thesis from the discussion was simple: limit the parameters of what you will produce and how you will produce to make the prospect of delving into creative work less daunting. In other words, start small, minimize the number of decisions you’re going to need to make, and just get to it.

Correspondingly, I would add that once past any kind of artist’s block, self-imposed constraints serve another important function: maintaining consistency. Not in a way that dampens creativity, but in a way that supports and lends direction to it (for instance, as a style guide would).

Ultimately, I think constraints can be lumped into three broad categories:

Scope/Specs

I’m all for spontaneous, uninhibited creative acts that effortlessly culminate into masterpieces, but in my experience those are few and far between. Having a clear idea of what you’re going to create (or what you’re not going to create) before you confront the blank page is half the battle.

Specs don’t need to be elaborate either. I took a textile design class in undergrad where the final project was a hand-painted silk kimono that had to include white, black, turquoise, and any kind of repeating pattern somewhere in the design.  If not for those specs, I’d probably still be standing over a wooden frame deciding where to commit dye.

Tools

When you limit yourself to only using a certain tool, you are imposing a constraint on yourself (e.g. a certain paint brush, a specific code library, iambic pentameter). Further, some tools have interesting constraints built into them as well, like the 140 character limit in Twitter.

I think that limiting what tools you’re going to use is the least threatening of all constraints to impose. Consider starting here.

Timeframe

I’ll confess, I suck at setting deadlines for my personal projects. I suck even more at adhering to the ones that I do set. I think part of it is a fear of shipping (Resistance!), and the other part is having the creative confidence to say “yes, I’m done now.”

Of course, time constraints are arguably the most important of all, because it’s not art if it’s not done and nobody ever sees it.

A Word of Caution

A sacred cow is not the kind of constraint we’re talking about here. If there’s an unquestioned limitation you impose your creativity—or perhaps is externally imposed on your creativity—it’s likely having the exact opposite effect on your work. Slaughter your sacred cows mercilessly.

Let's talk this out, shall we?

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