Constraints Spark Creativity

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

The Problem

It was a long time ago; I was a student in Paris. It was September, the beginning of a new school year.

I had a bit of leftover money from a summer job, and I bought a Super Nintendo.

A SNES needs a TV, which neither my roommates nor I had. So my friend J. and I left in the morning to try and find a small used colour TV. But, of course, it had to be cheap too, as I really didn’t have a lot of money left at that point.

We went to the first shop and bingo! There was the perfect TV set! The correct size at an affordable price with all the inputs we needed. Everything was just right.

That’s when I said: “Let’s go check if there is a better option somewhere else.”

So we started the long journey across the city, from one second-hand shop to the next, over and over. I dragged my friend around Paris the whole day, searching for a better option.

In the evening, we ended up going back to the very first shop to buy that first TV we had seen in the morning. We still played a game of Super Castlevania IV that night.

I am not very good at making small decisions. I suffer from all the imaginable buzzwords: fear of missing out, cost of opportunity, buyer’s remorse. You name it, I have it.

The choice is hard!

Maybe it comes from not having had much purchasing power as a kid. Perhaps it’s rooted in something else, but it seems that my ability to make a decision is inversely proportional to their importance.

The Solution

Over time, I built a system to avoid getting stuck in those situations. It works by transforming a series of recurring small decisions into a bigger one with a higher impact.

I used to have very long hair. When you have very long hair and decide to cut it, what do you do? I just had to shave it.

I shaved my head completely. It started as a joke, but then I enjoyed the comfort and the time savings. I went from spending a couple of hours twice a week tending to my hair to basically zero upkeep.

Later, confronted with my deep hatred of shopping for clothes and finding a t-shirt that I liked, I decided to buy several identical ones. I progressively expanded that approach to socks, boxers, jeans, and everything I needed to wear. 

Today in my closet, you’ll find only a handful of different items. Instead, I possess multiple duplicates of each.

Shopping for clothes is now reduced to one Amazon order every two years.

I wear the same outfit every day. I don’t have to make decisions about my clothing. Every morning, I pick a clean t-shirt, pair of boxers, socks and trousers. Then, if the outside temperature is 20C or below, it’s jeans and dress socks; if it is above 20C, it’s cargo pants and invisible socks.

Nobody knows which pants you wear on a Zoom call, so I also look the same every day…

At first, it was a bit weird. Thinking that people might imagine I was wearing the same old dirty clothes each day, I felt lonely in that world for a while. I didn’t know anybody else behaving the same way, and everyone seemed to follow fashion and seasons.

The Confirmation

I then started reading about how prominent people worldwide were applying similar principles to their lives. How they were saving precious time by limiting the number of decisions they had to make every day.

You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.

Barak Obama to Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair, 2012

Steve Jobs was another example, wearing his signature black turtleneck for many years.

While that made me feel better, I still wasn’t entirely satisfied.

According to Roy F. Baumeister, a psychologist who studies decision fatigue:

Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs or illicit sex. It’s the same willpower that you use to be polite or to wait your turn or to drag yourself out of bed or to hold off going to the bathroom. Your ability to make the right investment or hiring decision may be reduced simply because you expended some of your willpower earlier when you held your tongue in response to someone’s offensive remark or when you exerted yourself to get to the meeting on time.” 

I do like having a system that saves me time and energy. I experience first-hand the benefit of starting each morning with no decisions to make until focusing on work. It allows me to get to that crucial part of the day sooner and at total capacity.

But, as strong as they might be in the long term, time and energy conservation systems are not inherently creative. Instead, their outcome depends on what one uses the time and energy saved for. 

The Epiphany

That was until, maybe about a year ago, I found an interview with Alan Schaller, a photographer I admire. He was describing what he calls the Liberation of Limitation:

Limitations come in many forms. What makes all the difference is if we can manage to turn them into our friends instead of seeing them as our enemies.” and then “In the context of photography, it’s great! I used to go out a lot with one lens and one body, preferably 24mm, shooting only in black and white with my Leica M Monochrom (Typ 246). For some time I even worked exclusively from 1.2 metres. Putting all these kinds of limitations on myself was a big part of developing my style. By ignoring everything outside my zone I learnt how to anticipate an image. After some time I knew, if something was going to happen in my zone, I was going to get it.

By defining arbitrary constraints to your craft, limiting yourself, for example, to black and white or to a specific subject, focal length, or a particular camera, you enhance your creativity. You don’t have all the options available, so you have to think about the image you want to create ahead of time to place yourself at the right time in the right spot.

Such constraints also become an element of personal style and brand. Adding restrictions and limitations to your craft makes it easier to build a consistent and coherent body of work.

I knew then this was going to be my next step. So this past summer, I went all-in by replacing all my cameras and lenses with a Q2 monochrome. This camera only makes black and white photographs and has a fixed prime lens as its only option.

I spent time deciding which camera or which lenses I’d carry and use. Now I just pick up the only one I have and go. 

I was hiding behind long focal lenses to compensate for my fear of shooting photos of strangers in the street. The 28mm on the Q2 doesn’t allow for that, forcing me out of my comfort zone.

I would endlessly hesitate between showing my photos in colour or black and white. Now I can focus on the light and composition instead.

Schaller was right. Limitations are improving my photography.

They transformed a system focused on savings into one that sparks creativity

I wonder what the next area I can improve with this system is. What do you think?

12 responses to “Constraints Spark Creativity”

  1. […] It's simple: remove the choice. Choose an outfit you like, buy many copies of it, wear the same every day. I know I made it sound like a joke, but I really do that. […]

  2. […] recently shared how I believe constraints spark creativity. Here's how artificially limiting scope, time, or space can improve […]

  3. Vasily Avatar

    Enjoyed the idea and reading your story, Paolo! It’s very simple but extremely powerful, and now I’d like to apply it to some areas of my own life and work. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Paolo Avatar

    Andrew! I love how you can find examples of this everywhere, once you start looking. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  5. Anne Avatar

    Constraint is Paolo. You are (of course) Creativity. You both sparkle ❤️

  6. Anne Avatar

    Tu as toujours été en avance sur tes contemporains, au moins sur une de tes contemporains, à savoir moi. Je me souviens parfaitement que tu m’as exposé ta théorie du dressing parfait il y a quelques années… (alors tu parlais même du tshirt ideal à usage unique, la décroissance n’était pas encore à la mode) A l’époque, totalement dingue de Marc Jacobs, j’avais souri… et bien je t’avoue qu’aujourd’hui je marche sur tes traces et m’habille tous les jours pareil, vinted m’aidant à trouver un 5e exemplaire du pantalon cargo qui me va, printemps été 2015… si ! C’est vrai ! Je te jure que c’est vrai. Du coup me voilà rassurée sur mon avenir: je vais cultiver un virtual garden et écrire une newsletter. Ma façon à moi de ne pas décider : fais comme Paolo ! Il me reste à trouver quoi faire de ce temps que tu me fais gagner et où faire scintiller ma créativité…

  7. Robert Felty Avatar

    I recently bought a new microwave, and found the number of options on Amazon simply overwhelming, so I went to a store which had a handful of options, and found one that looked adequate, and it is.

  8. Robert Felty Avatar

    It is hard for me to imagine you with long hair Paolo. Excellent advice though. I recently shopped for a new microwave. I spent some time on Amazon, and the number of options was simply overwhelming. I went to the store, which only had a couple, and found one which would be adequate, and it is.

  9. Andrew Goff Avatar

    100% agree. Another example of reducing decisions (or constraints sparking creativity): Shakespeare’s stand-alone poetry other than sonnets is… suspect. But when strictly constrained to a very demanding form he produced arguably the greatest English language poetry in history.

  10. Ben Dwyer Avatar
    Ben Dwyer

    I concur, but slightly more alliteratively!

    1. ZigomaD Avatar

      I think constraints can spark creativity and then These three conceive another spark.

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