• Jason Griffing

To Boost Your Output, Add a Constraint

"Limits are an artist's best friend." —Frank Lloyd Wright

In his book, "A Whack on the Side of the Head", author and creativity expert Roger Von Oech reminds us that constraints can be a powerful stimulant to the creative process.


Examples abound in art and literature: Poets write sonnets with highly prescriptive patterns. Music composers follow standard formulas in their compositions. Authors follow the conventions of their genre.


It feels counterintuitive: Constraints feel restrictive; How can that help us be more creative? One reason might be that decisions are costly, draining tons of our mental energy. Constraints, by definition, reduce the number of decisions we have to make, meaning more of our headspace can be devoted to actions that move the needle. It makes me think of a quote I read from Montaigne:


“As the wind loses its force diffused in void space, unless it in its strength encounters the thick wood."--Lucan, iii. 362.]

I also think this passage about style from author Michael Tanner sums it up beautifully (bold emphasis is mine):


The mere use of the concept of style is enough to make us think of given frameworks within which people work, achieving individuality thanks to the support which the framework offers. An obvious case is the Classical Style in music, as manifest from Haydn through Mozart and Beethoven, petering out at some indeterminate point. The constraints of that style were rigorous, but one cannot imagine any one of those three composers thriving without it. They were able to be themselves because so much was already given.

What parts of your work could benefit from more constraints?

  • Could your team make better decisions if you had fewer priorities to pick from?

  • Could you deliver more impact if you had fewer things to manage?

  • Could your writing be improved if you made the structure more formulaic?

We've all experienced the power of constraints when we've had to work under a tight deadline or with a limited budget. The pressure makes us more resourceful. It causes us to look at the problem from different angles, angles we might otherwise have missed. We give ourselves permission to try new approaches.


So the next time you're facing a difficult challenge, try subtraction instead of addition. Give yourself a tight deadline. Follow a prescriptive formula. Focus solely on a narrow subset of the problem only. See what the power of constraints can unlock.

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