Constraints have an image problem.
All too often, the word “constraints” conjures up images of frustration. A quick google image search of the word “constraints” results in pages of figures chained down and locked up.
Our culture easily perpetuates the idea that constraints are something to be viewed negatively. We are led to desire endless variety and superfluous choice; a culture very much at odds with constraints.
An idea that is seldom shared is this: constraints can actually improve our lives. We’re bombarded with excessive stimuli at every corner, making it tricky to navigate the relentless onslaught of options we encounter on a daily basis. We’re often stuck with too broad a spotlight, and we need to narrow our focus if we want any chance of making a decision or starting a project.
Deliberate and carefully placed constraints can be effective tool to help guide our creative and our professional endeavors.
The Image Problem
We operate under the belief that we have the best likelihood of achieving success whenever we have the most freedom of options available to us. A constraint is something that restricts our choices; it limits our freedom to choose by narrowing our options.
Our culture promotes a love of variety—we almost always think we would be better off with more choices. This is mostly true, but eventually the paradox of choice kicks in. Once a certain number of options are made available to us, we are overwhelmed and we find it more difficult to make a choice.
Three types of peanut butter on a shelf leads to a relatively straightforward decision, but thirty types of peanut butter complicates our ability to make decisions and aids in our anxiety of making the best choice.
This cultural affinity for variety is at odds with the very idea of constraints, and this contradiction is why our connotations towards constraints are often negative.
We believe that we would prefer as many options as possible, but an infinite number of options is more likely to worry us than to help us.
There are more options available to us in every aspect of our lives than ever before. Wikipedia lists 94 toothpaste brands. There are over a billion videos available to be watched on YouTube. Over 100,000 new albums are released each year. Whether we are trying to figure out what to buy, create, or enjoy, we are presented with a number of options far greater than could ever be necessary.
Voluntarily imposing constraints upon ourselves can help us navigate this seemingly endless sea of options.
A Clearer Path
Constraints help decisions become clearer by narrowing potential options to evaluate, thus narrowing our focus. The idea is not to limit our lives until we’re miserable, but rather to be aware of potential ways that self imposed constraints might help us achieve our goals.
There are external constraints that we have little control over (i.e gravity), but there are plenty of constraints that we can set up ourselves, so as to benefit ourselves.
We can use constraints to help us work more efficiently. A time constraint provides less freedom to work leisurely, but it increases our productivity and doesn’t allow for wasted effort.
We can use constraints to help us begin. A writing prompt restricts the writer to one specific subject, but it simultaneously makes it easier to start by narrowing the focus.
We can use constraints to help us think creatively. A haiku restricts the writer to only three lines and a 5–7–5 syllabic pattern, but this forces the writer to be more deliberate and inventive.
When there are only a few options, the path to follow becomes clearer.
When constraints are self-imposed, they can be altered as needed and removed when required. Try brainstorming a few constraints you could add to whatever project you’re struggling with; you might be surprised by the results.