The Surprising Influence of Constraints & Predictability to Unleash Creativity

Suprematism – Abstract Composition | Kazimir Malevich

You may be familiar with the phenomenon or know individuals who are gifted with innate creativity struggle to incorporate discipline into their lives to manage, maximise and get the best out of their creative potential. On the other hand, individuals who are naturally structured tend to fail to allow themselves even the smallest degree of freedom within their daily routines to explore their creative capabilities. I have personally observed this phenomenon on numerous occasions throughout the past decade while working with various creative individuals. 

Creativity, inherently linked to the idea of freedom and openness, often makes the concept of discipline feel like a betrayal to creative instincts.

As a proponent of freedom: the freedom of movement, time, space, thought, and decision-making, along with all its accompanying aspects, I have come to realize that complete and unrestricted freedom can sometimes derail individuals rather than provide them with an opportunity to produce their best work. This led me to a significant observation: paradoxically, constraints and predictability can serve as remarkable catalysts for creativity and inspiration.

When faced with limitations, the mind is compelled to think beyond conventional boundaries and seek unconventional solutions, leading to moments of inspiration. Both constraints and predictability can act as fuel for creativity, providing a framework or set of limitations within which innovative ideas can emerge.

Now, let’s explore various types of constraints that can nurture your creativity.

Time Constraints or universally known deadlines. When faced with a tight deadline, the sense of urgency forces us to think quickly and come up with innovative solutions. This constraint pushes you to think outside the box and find more efficient ways to accomplish your goals. Personally, whenever I encounter a creative block and struggle to find a specific idea, I put a self-imposed deadline, inducing a slight degree of “stress”, and challenge myself to generate multiple solutions within that limited timeframe. For instance, if you have an hour to come up with a particular idea, give yourself 5 minutes and see the surprising outcome. Then you can dedicate as much time as you want to refine and expand upon the initial concept. It might not necessarily be the breakthrough idea that you were looking for (but it might as well), but it will be significantly divergent from anything that you would have anticipated. The time constraint encourages you to make bold choices and explore unconventional ideas within the set limited timeframe. Give it a try.

Resource Constraints can inspire creativity by encouraging you to find alternative solutions or make the most of what they have. When faced with limited resources, innovative thinking and resourcefulness come to the forefront. For example an artist who has run out of traditional paint brushes decides to experiment with unconventional tools such as kitchen utensils or even their fingers, leading to unique textures and artistic effects. Or, a chef working with a limited set of ingredients creates a new recipe by combining flavours in unexpected ways, resulting in a dish that becomes their signature creation. I’m sure this principle can be applied across various professional domains. Embrace every restriction or scarcity of resources as a massive opportunity to come up with an unconventional solution you wouldn’t have come up otherwise.

Medium Constraints can spark creativity by challenging you to find innovative ways to express yourself within the boundaries of a specific medium. One observation I’ve made, particularly in the realm of design, is that when designers are provided with a specific framework, such as creating a poster using only two colours or three shapes, the ideas generated within specific medium constraints tend to be more robust compared to complete and total freedom. For instance, a photographer shooting exclusively in black and white, develops a unique visual style by focusing on contrast, texture, and composition to convey emotions and tell stories without relying on color. Or a poet writing a haiku (a traditional Japanese form consisting of three lines and a specific syllable count) finds creative ways to distill complex thoughts and imagery into a concise and evocative format. By working within the limitations imposed by a medium, you are compelled to think imaginatively and find unconventional solutions to convey your message effectively. This process often leads to the development of unique and impactful artistic expressions.

Let’s explore the role of predictability in creativity. While it can be a bit nuanced, predictability has the potential to both enhance and hinder creative thinking, depending on how it is perceived and utilized.

Establishing a certain level of predictability in your daily routine is crucial for your brain to effectively allocate its efforts and energy. This is particularly important due to the phenomenon known as decision fatigue. Decision fatigue refers to the decline in decision-making quality after a prolonged period of making choices. Decision fatigue is rooted in the understanding that decision-making requires cognitive effort and consumes mental energy. Each decision, regardless of its significance, depletes a finite cognitive resource.

Now, let’s examine a few ways in which predictability can positively influence creativity:

Rituals and routines can play a pivotal role in fostering creativity.  Engaging in predictable rituals or routines creates a structured and stable environment. In particular, having a well-crafted morning routine is guaranteed to set up for a productive day. Whether it involves brewing a cup of coffee, settling at a designated desk, listening to instrumental music, engaging in writing, drawing, meditating, stretching, planning the day or simply gazing at the sky, the consistency and predictability of a set routine will help in cultivating a focused and creative mindset.

Security and Stability: When individuals have a sense of stability in their environment, it creates a foundation of security. This feeling of safety can help free up mental space and reduce anxiety, allowing creative thoughts and ideas to flow more easily. It serves as a good common ground for the optimal allocation of mental resources. 

Predictability can conserve mental resources that would otherwise be consumed by dealing with uncertainty, because as we all know, the creatives LOVE uncertainty and are happy to embrace it to explore new realms. When individuals have a clear understanding of their environment and expectations, they can consciously direct their cognitive energy towards exploring new ideas, experimenting, and generating creative solutions.

The sense of stability and security varies for each person, but here are a few general examples of what can serve as sources of stability.  For struggling creatives, finding a day job may help divert their attention from logistical concerns and allow them to nurture their creativity in their free time. For others, building a stable and supportive relationship can provide a solid emotional foundation for their creative pursuits.

Risk-Taking: Knowing that certain aspects of life are predictable can give you the confidence to take calculated risks. When there is a level of predictability, people may feel more comfortable stepping out of their comfort zones and exploring unconventional or innovative approaches. This environment of predictability nurtures creativity by fostering a willingness to take risks in pursuit of new and exciting possibilities.

However, it is crucial to acknowledge that excessive predictability can also stifle creativity and hinder the ability to get out of the comfort zone by limiting exposure to new experiences, ideas, and perspectives. 

This article aims to emphasize the importance of achieving a balance between predictability and novelty to nurture creativity. Striking the right equilibrium will provide a stable foundation while still leaving enough space for exploration, experimentation, and the emergence of innovative ideas.