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Setting up creative limitations actually makes work easier.

dinosaur cartoon

Boundaries are your friend. You might think that boundaries (like deadlines) are killing you, but this is not the case.

At the end of my year of teaching art, I found I had more days left than curriculum and I decided to let students experience the challenge (and fun) of forced creative limitations. Plus, I had several cupboards full of odds and ends, all the bits and bobbles that collect in an art room.

"We're going to do a project where we exercise creative limitation," I explained as the kids walked into the room and looked confused at the pile of strange stuff in the middle of the tables. "You're going to be given a final project, and all you can use to make it is what you see here."

They had to create an object that had the potential to create noise and included movement of some kind. The design qualities had to be thoughtful and visually attractive. On the final day of class, they would demonstrate their project to the rest of the class.

I wasn't concerned with how they approached problem solving, only that they didn't bring anything else into the room and had to do the build in class where I could watch. Their machine could be complicated or simple. It could be colorful or haphazard.

There was a lot of groaning. What was on the table looked like garbage. After assuring the students it wasn't an impossible task, one called out from the back of the room that I had to do the project, too.

This was going to be tough, but fun.

#1 - Creative limitations actually give you more time.

Decision-making eats up a lot of time and thought.

Students had limits on materials and time, and once they moved past complaining, I watched as they actually worked much faster than they did with other art projects that had fewer restraints. There were no peripheral distractions that they could consider trying.

Creative limitations force us to focus. The tightly defined outcome makes this easier.

Without creative limitations, there is too much for us to choose from. We waste our time wandering around ideas. Boundaries keep us from wandering around. Instead of having a whole universe of possibilities to work with, we have just a few.

#2 - Creative limitations create more freedom for you

After a year of listening to high school students tell me various art projects were dumb, I was amazed at how quickly they got excited about the final project.

I knew why.

In art school, my drawing instructor used to joke about the terror or the blank page and when we stood at our easels with perfect white paper, it really was hard to make that first mark. Sometimes he'd tell us to make a big X on the paper, ruin it, and then get on with saving it by drawing well over it.

When there are no boundaries or limitations, anything goes. Like the dinosaur cartoon at the start of this post, having no "fence" makes it easy to go off the cliff. Oddly, that causes us to huddle more toward the middle because we have fenceless freedom but we don't want to go too far. With a fence, we can relax and explore the whole space.

Boundaries are freedom.

#3 - Creative limitations force you to get really creative

If you don't have endless options, you kind of have to McGyver your way to a solution. And it's exciting.

The more broad an art project was, the more disappointing the student work. They had all the time and all the freedom and tended to do the least amount of work in the least creative way. That final project was another story; students that didn't seem to enjoy making things really came through and had a blast problem solving their way to the end.

Fewer options, more creativity required. You can't fall back on plenty to carry the day. And when you come through, it's exhilarating.

Did you know that Dr. Seuss' book Green Eggs And Ham was written because the author had a bet with his editor that he couldn't write a book using fewer than 225 words? He did it in 50 different words.

Think of Apollo 13 in which a group of people had to brainstorm a solution (which often clashes with limitations), but instead of turning them loose they were given strict guidelines of what they could use in coming up with their solution.

Kickstart your writing by setting up creative limitations and boundaries.

For starters, especially if you're having a hard time figuring out what to write on your blog, set up some arbitrary content limitations.

  • Mondays are story-led posts

  • How-to posts are the second Wednesday of every month

  • The first month of every quarter will be an interview blog post

  • Randomly pick a page in a book and write based on what's there (see also: George Harrison and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps")

Any kind of planning is basically a content limitation, if you stick to the plan.

Then, set up time limitations that restrict the amount of time you'll work on a project, stare at a screen before getting up and taking a break, and so on.

You might be wondering how the students' projects turned out. They were amazing, though I broke the rules a bit.

I made a candy dispenser in which the candy would bounce and ping off of wooden beads on their way down the chute, and on the last day of class I filled it with bags of candy (which were not found on the classroom table) and we closed out the year with M & Ms. It was a great send-off.


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