How creative constraints lead to better ideas and increased productivity
Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, knew he was up for the task. After The Cat in the Hat, which used only 225 words, his editor challenged him to write a book using even fewer.
The result would be one of the best-selling children’s books of all time: Green Eggs and Ham, whichused only 50 different words throughout.
Is it simply a coincidence that his most successful book, and one of the most popular children’s books of all time, resulted from the challenge?
Apparently not. The Green Eggs and Ham hypothesis of creativity, which theorizes creative constraints can actually lead to better ideas and more creativity, was put to the test by Rider University psychologist Catrinel Haught-Tromp.
She devised two studies, and the results were surprising. Haught-Tromp found students wrote more creatively when they were instructed to abide by certain arbitrary rules, verses having no constraints at all.
More remarkably, even after the limitations were lifted, students continued to work at a higher level of creativity and originality. It appears once the students’ creativity was ignited, it stayed heightened, at least for a while.
Less is more
“…the imagination is unleashed by constraints. You break out of the box by stepping into shackles.” ― Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works
Though it may sound counter-intuitive, having constraints on your creativity can lead to better ideas, increased productivity and more innovative work. We act more resourcefully, and problem solve in unexpected, outside-the-box ways.
Imagination is often better served by limitations, than freedom.
Fewer resources, it seems, lead people to view them more expansively. But why?
It seems when we have unlimited assets and means at our disposal, we have less enticement and motivation to use those resources in novel, unexpected ways. With a few constraints in place, we’re forced to become more creative, and our brains are usually more than up for the challenge.
So how do we put this concept to work in our own lives? Here are some ideas for devising and embracing constraints to improve your craft.
If you’re a writer, consider limiting yourself to a topic, challenge yourself to use (or not use) a set word list in your writing, or practice a new type of writing (for example, if you’re a free verse poet, try writing a haiku or acrostic).
An entrepreneur? Pick a project or current challenge and limit your budget or other resources. Add parameters where there otherwise were none.
Invest some time in defining your company’s constraints. You may be skeptical at first, but give it a try. You may be surprised at what is unleashed.
If you’re an artist or crafter, limit your tools, color palette or medium. Dedicate yourself to working only with materials you already have on hand (verses buying new materials), or set a budget for your piece that’s a bit lower than your usual allocation.
No matter your creative profession, play around with adding limitations to your art, and watch these challenges broaden your perception and encourage you to connect ideas and concepts in new and unique ways.
Your creative constraints, when no longer seen as a drawback, become the basic elements of your very best work.