Constraints: Tie me up, Tie me down

You may find yourself in a situation where someone you’re working with just doesn’t want to be constrained with guidelines on their creative output. Maybe you’re that person. Maybe it’s deadlines. Maybe it’s a specific word count you need to hit, or can’t go over. Maybe it’s some topic for a short story anthology you’re working on.

“What? I have to write something about a kid without any parents? So we’re going to have a book full of orphan stories? What kind of stupid requirement is that? And it’s a paranormal collection? Paranormal is so last year. What’s the point?”

Okay, precious, let’s talk about constraints.

These are for your own good.

“The most gifted members of the human species are at their creative best when they cannot have their way.”

We’ve probably all heard (or thought) that a blank sheet of paper is terrifying – the point being, too much freedom is just that: too much. Artists love to wax rhapsodic about complete creative freedom, but a lot of the time, having total freedom to do or create anything at all tends to paralyze. I don’t have time to be an artist; craftsmen need guidelines.

“Write whatever you want — anything you do will be great.” That’s a terrible set of instructions, right there. It’ll take me months to get you anything, assuming I ever get you anything.

“I’m going to need something presentable in two weeks.” Now we’re getting somewhere.

“I need it in two weeks and it needs to involve two bishops from Papau New Guinea and their pet llama.” Excellent. Man, I can work with that.

But oh the horror — these constraints have taken things away from me! They’ve robbed me of choices! What if I wanted monks instead of bishops, and a surly binturong instead of a llama? How can my life as an arteest go on?

Surly Binturong is very Hurt that you have excluded him as an option.

Okay… yes, every detail and requirement that is added to a set of guidelines takes away options, but having obstacles to deal with means you’re more likely to take some path you might never have otherwise explored. Obstacles are a gift. The biggest secret to being a creative and productive person is embracing constraints instead of running from them. Small spaces lead to cool innovations. Walls in your way just mean you have something to grab when you need to climb higher.

The other big benefit of constraints is that they focus your energy into a smaller space. A completely blank sheet of paper is like an open, featureless plain — it doesn’t matter how much you have, there’s very little chance you’re going to be able to fill that vast space up with energy. The best thing you can possibly do is compress your energy into a smaller space. Any amount of energy delivers more power when it is controlled, compressed, and directed. Start with an open plain, then keep pressing inward until you’ve squeezed all that down into the smallest package possible. A building. A room. A box. A bullet.


Maybe you’re floundering with your current project. See if there’s a way you can make the scope smaller. Compress it. Constrain it.

Think inside the box. See what happens.