Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?