Restrict Your Creativity to Unleash It

Restrict Your Creativity to Unleash It

“Just be creative.” Those words signal impending doom. Once uttered, the curse of “just be creative” removes all trace of creativity in my head – just like magic.

If the truth be told, I hate it when people ask me to “just be creative”. Those three words nearly guarantee that I’ll spend hours staring at the screen, racking my brains for something brilliant and agonizing that I’m coming up empty.

Trying to “just be creative” is like trying to find gold. You can squat in the cold water of the creek for hours, scooping up mud in a metal pan and swirling it around in the hopes of spotting one single, tiny grain of yellow.

For a few years now, I’ve believed that my struggles with creativity meant that I wasn’t a great thinker or a very good writer. I blamed myself for not having some innate magical spark that let me instantly grasp what no one had thought of before.

I was expected to be creative. I was supposed to be creative. But I can count on one hand the number of posts I’ve written that I think are truly good enough to hit the mark.

I’m not alone with this issue, either. Google keywords like “finding inspiration” or “how to be creative” and you get millions of returns.

I even asked people for ideas. “Give me a topic,” I’d demand. “Something about writing.” Not surprisingly, people came up blank, just like me.

I recently realized that I was asking for the wrong thing. I didn’t want ideas; I wanted restrictions. When I had restrictions and a box to work within, creativity came easily. The more restrictions I had, the more angles I could think of.

I was thinking my way out of the box. And I was creative.

What about you? Do you like restrictions when facing a creative task or do you prefer full creative freedom? Which situation helps you unleash your mind the most?

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. Too true.

    It’s like all those high level commands without any “technique” or “show me how” advice … lose weight … get fit … change the world … win the game … be smart …

    The riqht questions work better than statements. Our mind gets resourceful when we ask the right things … “if I was in my most creative place, what might it feel like?” … “if I was feeling creative right now, what might I dream up?” … etc.

    One of the best … and I think I might even dare say “THE” best catalogs of patterns and practices for creativity is THINKERTOYS. It helps that it’s written by a former Disney imagineer. It’s an organized set of different creativity patterns and idea techniques from linear to intuitive. You can spend a lifetime mastering the techniques. It’s a valuable skill worth figuring out because nothing’s better than being able to think your way out of a paper bag or be smarter than the box (at least those are the challenges my Dad always put me up to.)

    What’s cool too is I happen to have a guest post on life lessons from the author of THINKERTOYS. The post is called Choice and it gives you a little insight into Michael’s perspective on life.

    J.D. Meier´s last blog post…Influencing Without Authority

  2. You’re so right… I’ve always had a huge problem creating when given a completely blank slate, but give me more specific guidelines (or, as you say, restrictions) and creativity comes much easier.

    I used to think there was no way in heck I could choreograph. I couldn’t come up with a good piece of music to dance to, I couldn’t come up with the right movements. I’ve since realized that as long as I’m given a good piece of music, a specific style of dance, or even a story the piece is supposed to tell, choreography comes much more naturally than without any restrictions.

    This is also what makes something like Escaping Reality so fantastic. Give me a blank page normally, and I can’t write for the life of me (unless I have something that’s really been building up in me for a while. In that case watch out, I’m a woman on a rampage.) But put my character in a specific situation with other characters/writers that restrict her actions and reactions, and the words flow much easier. If you had asked me a year ago, I would’ve told you there was no way in heck I could ever write any sort of fiction, under any circumstances. I would have insisted that I couldn’t ever be a decent writer, that I hated writing altogether. But just look at me now…

    Sorry, tangent. ER does that to me. 😉

    Anyways, back to what you were saying… I think it’s the fact that restrictions force you to be creative to get around them, while on the other hand you don’t have to be very creative to fill a blank, unrestricted slate.

    Allison Day´s last blog post…A Hug Rolled up with Salmon and Seaweed

  3. I completely agree. I can’t speak for other people, but my best work is always done when restrictions are put on me. If nothing else, you have to be creative to work around them. I briefly touched on that when I did a bit of a nostalgia thing and tried to recall how I use to go about writing radio ads. Essentially, I imposed a structure to them that I had to work within.

    The web is the same, as I think are all other forms of writing. Maybe the reason is because it forces the writer and editor in you to work hand in hand.

    Some people may feel that the imposition of restrictions hamstrings their creativity, and perhaps that’s true for them. Not for me, however.

    Bill´s last blog post…Terminology: Sorry, I can’t keep up

  4. Heh. Allison is the best word-of-mouth engineer for ER there could possibly be. She almost makes me wish I had more time, every time she glows about it. :)


    Yes, yes, yes. This is why, when I move into a new building (or think up a new ad, or want to write a new web page), I’m dumbfounded as to what my own space should look like, but when I’m at a client’s space (ad/ web page), I say, we should do this and this. The client, his or her business and tastes and goals, restrict me. An empty room and only myself to please leaves me twiddling my thumbs. It takes far longer to come up with something for me… until I start treating me like the client, realizing I have a business and tastes and goals and restrictions, too.

    “I can do anything” is one of the most dangerous phrases there is for creative people. At MCE I’m constantly looking for ways to put restraints on what I might do, so I can get creative within a set of guidelines.

    You touched on a point that a lot of folks miss, here. Freedom isn’t as freeing as it looks!



    Kelly´s last blog post…Are You as Essential as Morning Coffee?

  5. @ Kelly –

    “I can do anything” is one of the most dangerous phrases there is for creative people.

    Did you know that for a year or so, this sentence figured in my About Us:

    “James’ favorite words are, ‘I can do anything.'”

  6. James,

    LOL. No, I didn’t. Hope you don’t think I was calling you out!

    I always tell clients, “I don’t care if you can do everything. Who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I think I’ll hire someone who can do everything’?”

    Restrictions rock, even if you can do everything. Like you and I. :)

    Until later,


    Kelly´s last blog post…Are You as Essential as Morning Coffee?

  7. *splutters* My comment is awaiting mod?

    Kelly´s last blog post…Are You as Essential as Morning Coffee?

  8. @ Kelly – We’re keeping a close eye on you. It was just a spot check.

  9. You are absolutely right.
    I’m a student. Whenever my parents restrict me to do some work on my PC and tell me to study, i just physically present there with my book BUT i keep thinking about my plan on the work i need to do in PC. This let’s me get Really cool ideas that i can work on.

    Thank u Restrictions , Thank u mom & dad.

    muralio´s last blog post…geekz: Hackers broke the Twitter’s admin system using simple password guessing hack.
    Here is the video:

  10. Bang on, I reckon. I’ve recently been encouraging my readers to abandon the concept of the muse and look at writing as a process. I believe that once you do that, you can write with greater freedom, which will hopefully lead to increased creativity.

    That said, not everyone agrees and my post has caused something of a dust up. It was my first one, as well! Oops.

    Iain Broome´s last blog post…10 things to write on in an emergency!

  11. Yes, “Just be creative” is like telling someone “Don’t laugh when the Queen comes by.” I think it was George Burns who told someone that and the person struggled to stifle the laughter.

    Meryl K. Evans´s last blog post…4 Steps to Run with Twitter

  12. Ah, there’s nothing as terrifying as a blank piece of paper!! (Or an empty Word document, for that matter.)

    Maria | Never the Same River Twice´s last blog post…Traveling By Your Inner Compass: Plotting Out The First Week

  13. “Take an idea an run with it” might be the best advice out there. Free writing gets the juices going but, as you say, sometimes we need something to spark off the creativity.

    We’ve been discussing this at the blog: what fires the creative process; what shuts it down.

    In the end, each writer has a process. The key rests in finding what works for you, recognizing it, and putting it to work for yourself.

    Write and Earn a Living´s last blog post…Finding Writing and Blogging Jobs

  14. You are psychic, or there is something in the air. I was thinking this very thing yesterday morning when I thought of kids who are often very creative when given limits. And become zombies (or impossible to live with) when given no boudaries. Of course, that “creativitity” can also be hard to live with :) Good post. – Marcia

  15. The other day I told my wife I was having a hard time with what to write about. I had a glimmer of an idea, but that’s it. She started shelling out ideas–she’s really good at it–but more ideas only frustrated the creative process. Like you, I needed restrictions. I had restrictions in medium (writing), but I needed to talk it out, put my glimmer into a box. That’s why for me it’s easiest to create when I have a starting point, a predefined point A where I can start creating to eventually reach the previously unknown point B.

  16. @ Marcia – Psychic. Definitely. I like that much better than thinking it was something in the air…

    @ Write – Take an idea and run with it is great advice, but many people find themselves jammed for ideas. There are too many. There are wild angles. There aren’t any at all. Then what? That’s when restrictions can provide that spark of creativity to start running.

    Hoo yeah!

    @ Maria – Tell me about it. I hate the “blank page” syndrome that crops up. Good for doodling, though!

    @ Meryl – You laugh at our Queen?! Ohmigod! That’s like… blasphemy or something!

    @ Iain – Hey, shoot me a link to that post. Fired up comment sections are fun to play in!

    @ Muralio – Heh, thank Mum and Dad for telling you to study. And good on you for using the restriction as an idea-bringer for when you’re *done* studying!

    @ Kelly – *raises hand* I’d personally like to hire someone who can do everything… No?

    @ Bill – Death words to me: “Just be creative.” That’s like saying, “This is a test. I’m going to give you such a vague bar of standards that you have no idea where the bar is to begin with, and I’m going to watch you jump to see if you hit it. Of course, I won’t even tell you if you’re close or far off. Just jump. Oh, and if you miss? FAIL.”

    Hell no. No thanks.

    @ Allison – I can see that. Someone plays music and you can almost see the images of what that represents to you, and then creativity is unleashed. No music? Damn. How do you want to present something spectacular otherwise?

    And we love Escaping Reality too. It’s a real creative playground! What’s interesting is that even the most ordinary situations (a post-it note, perhaps?) become spectacular.

    @ JD – They say that goal-setting requires specifics to work. “I will lose weight this year” sucks, because there are no milestones, it’s too vague and there are no reference points. “I will lose 1 pound a week for 10 weeks by doing XYZ every day for 30 minutes” is almost guaranteed to work.



  17. @ Ryan – When people give me ideas, I typically reject them all – BUT! I always say, “Not that, no… THIS!” And away I go with my own idea. All it took was someone to start restricting my thoughts to open up my ideas. Make sense?

  18. Couldn’t agree more. If an editor said write me a story with a bug, a weekend in Aspen and 3 out of work screenwriters… it seems like that would be more fun than that editor saying write me a story about winter travel. And require more, hm, stretching to make it pop.

    Janice Cartier´s last blog post…Exploratory Drawings

  19. @James — not me! I’d never laugh at her highness even if she does something like George Bush (duck a shoe or throw up on another head of state). Besides, last I checked… Canada doesn’t have a queen. I was referring to Queen Elizabeth.

    Meryl K. Evans´s last blog post…4 Steps to Run with Twitter

  20. @James: I’m the same way. I think it’s mostly because I like the ideas to come from me–after all, my ideas are always better than someone else’s ideas, right? That’s why I like talking to people about what I’m thinking–then it feels like I came up with the idea, and I’m not just doing it because someone else thinks it’s a good idea. That would be too much like a job with a boss, and that’s pretty much the worst thing that could happen to me. :)

  21. I like restrictions too after a fashion. The restriction of a deadline or a word count or a word list is fun. There are restrictions I don’t like though and that would be more like a “you can’t do x” than a “you must do y”. Make sense?

    Scott´s last blog post…Peace Through Elimination of Fervor

  22. @ Meryl – Check again. Queen Elizabeth is the Queen of Canada. She’s got a long scepter and apparantly likes snow. :)

  23. Back when I was a mime – 20 years and 20 pounds ago – I worked with a brilliant performer named Michael Joyce, who’d been a Ringling Bros clown. He really knew his stuff.

    He once told me, “I give my best performances if I’m starving and I have to pee.”

    RhodesTer´s last blog post…Targeting the snackbar – revisited

  24. Okay Rhodester, any sentence that starts with “when I was a mime” stops me in my tracks…..And then the advice….I am ROFLOL…. because it is so true! Who knew, Mime advice to remember…..LOL. Love it. 😉

    Janice Cartier´s last blog post…Exploratory Drawings

  25. oooh, thank you Janice! But if that’s the case, let’s not stop there, okay?

    RhodesTer´s last blog post…Targeting the snackbar – revisited

  26. RhodesTer- LOL AND goosebumps my friend… that is all kinds of good. Thanks.

    Janice Cartier´s last blog post…Exploratory Drawings

  27. @Rhodster: Mime is money!

    Sorry, had a Spinal Tap flashback.

    It’s true though, when the pressure is on, as much as I hate it, that’s when I come up with my most brilliant work. The projects that give me the most problems are the ones where I’m told, “Just make it pretty” or “Do whatever you think looks good”

    When I have specific guidelines to go by I can narrow down all those ideas and begin to think outside the box I’ve been given.

  28. I’ve always seen creativity as recombining old things in new ways, or finding new perspectives on old subjects – both of those definitions require something “old”, established, a restriction.

    I do the same thing, casting about for some anchor. Once I have that, a subject or a character or a situation, then I can build from there.

    When that sentence is coming from someone who just asked me to do something, it should really be stated as: ” I can’t be bothered to think about this. Your job is to guess what I want until you get it right.” I had a pastor that used to ask for a sketch that upcoming Sunday, and then say “just be creative”. It never worked. Then, when I would get him to spend just five minutes talking about what he imagined or wanted, I could hit it every time.

  29. Creative restrictions are creative freedom. Think of trying to drink water without a glass. Containers hold us so we have the freedom to move without falling off the cliff or dissipating into a useless puddle.

  30. Kelly – ER is so addicting and wonderfully fun, I can’t help but rave about it. :)

    James – Yes! Exactly. Son laughs at me because I often zone out and start choreographing when I’m sitting in the car or at my desk, listening to music. If the music’s there and it’s decent music, I can choreograph to it. But if someone tells me they want me to choreograph a piece however I want and to whatever music, my mind goes blank. 😛

    Allison Day´s last blog post…A Hug Rolled up with Salmon and Seaweed

  31. *sigh* What did I do to always get stuck in moderation? I would never ever spam you guys, promise. 😉

    Allison Day´s last blog post…A Hug Rolled up with Salmon and Seaweed

  32. @ Allison – For some reason, Askimet is on speed today. Too much coffee, I think.

  33. Must be, did you give it some of your jet fuel? That’s probably the problem. 😉

    Allison Day´s last blog post…A Hug Rolled up with Salmon and Seaweed

  34. Harry – So as a designer, how much restriction do you need in order to be able to design well? Obviously a blank slate, “just go for it” isn’t enough, but… if someone were to give you a well-designed logo, could you design a site off of that? Or do you need more – a color scheme, a theme/intention for the blog, or even more guidelines? Curious minds want to know… :)

    Allison Day´s last blog post…A Hug Rolled up with Salmon and Seaweed

  35. Dear Curious Mind,

    I could make a site based off of a well designed logo, or even a poorly designed one. Usually a logo will have a color or image that says something about the person/business behind it.

    When we do sites for people, we do offer a detailed questionnaire asking for specifics like that too. I find that even if I am stuck, I’ll do the first thing that comes to mind and after the client has a piece to look at, they begin to narrow down the details.

  36. Dear Harry,

    Do you design sites for people with no logo at all? Would it be easier to design a site for a logo-less client or for one with a very poorly designed logo?

    Curious Mind

    Allison Day´s last blog post…A Hug Rolled up with Salmon and Seaweed

  37. My experience with Google is you have to be creative to find the ‘correct’ keywords. Those magical *keywords* are key to a fruitful search so we rack our brains to find the right keyword(s) and narrow the search to thousands instead of millions of results. Just saying.

  38. Thanks for making me think today! For me, there’s more than one way to creativity, and they’re opposites.

    I’m creative when I get away and don’t have any distractions. I guess that’s absolutely no restrictions. On a hike or run I always come up with my best ideas. Sort of meditational. Let the brain just be and it brings stuff forward.

    But I also realized the power of restrictions recently when we moved to a smaller house. It forced me to be creative to do the same with less space – and it’s been kinda fun to come up with ideas.


  39. James,

    You can put your hand down now. Is that arm hurting?

    C’mon. You don’t want to hire someone who does everything. A plumber-gardener-babysitter-housecleaner-psychic-poet-graphic designer-brain surgeon-garbage collector-masseuse?

    Nope. You gotta choose what you do for a living. If you’re a renaissance man in your spare time, cool. By day, you’re going to confuse potential clients and ultimately, not maximize your potential, by not nailing it down.

    Your arm’s too cute for me to leave it hanging there. :)



    Kelly´s last blog post…A Contrarian View of Short-Term Thinking

  40. & no more coffee for Akismet. Or Comment Luv, either. They’re both being naughty.

    Kelly´s last blog post…A Contrarian View of Short-Term Thinking

  41. I dunno..

    Most of the time I am literally bubbling with ideas. There’s never enough time for all of them but there’s always plenty to pick from.

    The only time I don’t feel like that is when I’m tired and stressed. I’ve noticed that so many times over my life that I use that as a canary: if I’m out of ideas and am staring at the screen (or anything else!) helplessly I know I’m over-tired and/or experiencing too much stress. I then go look in the mirror: if my beard has grown more than I would expect since I shaved that morning, I know that I’m stressed. If not, I’m just tired.

    Then I act appropriately: head for bed or identify what is causing me stress and doing something to nullify it.

    The creativity returns quickly. This may not be true for everyone, but I bet I’m not at all unique. Stress and tiredness lower creativity.

    But you may be right about restrictions. I see it this way: I’m never satisfied. Everything can be improved. I’m not a perfectionist, but everything can be better. That’s the “restriction” – this (whatever “this” is) isn’t what I want.

    In fact, that’s one of my mantras to people who want to work for themselves: you have to look at every problem as opportunity, maybe not for you, but for someone. The more you see everything that way, the more opportunities you recognize that ARE for you. The “problem” is a restriction, how can it become an opportunity?

    I could give dozens of examples but there isn’t room here.

    Tony Lawrence´s last blog post…Using Jing for support

  42. I do well when I’m giving a topic, but, then again, I also do well when I think of an idea. When a topic is presented, it’s usually specific and detailed. When I think of a topic it can become too broad and I have to narrow it down. It can become challlenging, but I believe it stretches the thinking muscles.

  43. You renegade French writer, you. Time to join Oulipo. Next step: write a blog post that is entirely a lippogram.

    Mark Silver´s last blog post…When Innocent Questions Turn Into Hours of Unpaid Time

  44. @ Mark – Finally! Someone who sees my shining value with clarity! The Renegade French Writer! (Now if I could just turn that into some sort of business…)

    I blame the French in me that I had to look up lippogram. Sounded nasty.

    @ Omar – Ideas are always so vast. But you see? You yourself mention that you need to narrow it down – so you restrict yourself to get the best!

    @ Tony – You mention something really important that most web workers neglect: Sleep and food improve creativity.

    For example, I forget to eat. Frequently. By the time I do remember, I’m so hungry I grab anything at hand just to get sustenance. It’s usually the wrong food for brain power.

    A couple of weeks ago, I forced myself to make a bowl of cereal each morning (sounds like nothing; trust me, it was tough, both to remember and to eat when I wasn’t hungry).

    Voila. I had about two hours more creative thinking, calmer mood and sharper insight each afternoon. My crash hour wasn’t at 2pm anymore. It pushed to 4pm.

    Amazing. Food. Who’da thunk?

    @ Kelly – Okay. When you put it that way… No. I don’t want a plumber operating on my brain. But I admit the thought of someone sweeping in and solving all my problems in a day was a nice dream for a while.

    ‘Till you smashed that, of course.

    *drops arm.*

  45. @ Casey – Heh, there you go! I love big houses and huge rooms – but I can do way more with a small room and make it more comfortable.

    @ Mark – Ugh. Keyword research. Ugh. That’s all I’ll say.

  46. @james

    I don’t know how old you are. I’m 61 next month and we old goats always think we have something important to say to the young’uns.

    If you are a kid (and anyone who can’t remember Eisenhower and never knew a time before TV is a kid to me), please listen to the old grump on this:

    Your health is important to your brain. Good food, healthy food, proper sleep, proper exercise is critical.

    Suppose I could give you the most fantastic machine you could imagine – it does EVERYTHING for you! It earns money, it entertains you, it can write books, it can make your friends laugh.. it’s a fantastic machine and it’s free but it requires maintenence to work well: food, rest, sleep, exercise.

    Would you perform the maintenance? Would you if I told you that even though it is free, you only get one and you can’t replace it and although sometimes it can be repaired that can be very expensive.. and often the repairs aren’t that good?

    Don’t abuse that machine. Treat it like it was the most important thing you ever owned. Because it is.

    As I said, I’m 61. I have a good healthy breakfast every day – usually a yogurt shake with bananas, apples and pears. I eat lots of nuts and legumes – eat very little meat and plenty of veggies of all kinds. I don’t drink soda, only water, juices and milk. I sleep whatever hours I need to be rested and I exercise regularly. I’ve been living like that a long, long time and it has paid off – in health, in apparent age, in brain power, in creativity, in EVERYTHING.

    Don’t be a couch potato. Don’t eat junk. Get the rest you need. Make it all the way you live your life. You’ll thank me later.

    Tony Lawrence´s last blog post…Using Jing for support

  47. @ Tony – That’s the most perfect analogy I’ve seen lately. (And I’m 37. Thought I was 38 until someone did the math for me.)

    I do good, though:

    1. I don’t couch potato. Never have. Never will. (But too many hours at the desk is similar.

    2. I don’t eat junk (much). Poutine does not count.

    3. Sleep. Ah, yes… Crash and burn between 9 and 10am. Nothing in my room but a bed, either. And I’ve woken naturally at about 5am for two years running now. Mornings rock. (With coffee.)

    4. Today’s weekend menu is a croissanwich with ham, eggs and Gouda.

  48. This post certainly hit the mark for me. Even as a child when someone told me I could not do something, I always tried to figure out a way to prove them wrong. So, applying restrictions to spawn creativity makes perfect sense.

    Susan/Unique Business Opportunity´s last blog post…Intro, Involve, Upgrade

  49. Hey James,

    I’ve definitely had the experience where having a focus or a restriction can really help me get a creative project accomplished. Those types of limitations are particularly useful when I am trying to achieve a specific creative outcome. Or another way of saying that is when I am headed towards a particular destination.

    But there are other times when I am in need of a pure creative journey. Where I don’t know where I am going and I am only interested in noodling and play and the outcome doesn’t matter at all. Only the experience of creating. I have this while painting or in stream of consciousness writing. When I am creating in this way I am often very surprised by what shows up and it doesn’t always make sense but it is incredibly fun and liberating.

    Both of these ways of being creative feed each other for me. If I’m continually focused on only the destination kind of creativity I tend to get kind of burned out and cranky and if I’m only in creativity as a process I miss the satisfaction and fulfillment that completing and crafting something can give me.

    Thanks for the post!


  50. I usually end up trying a lot of things that has gotten in my minds or should I say making my imaginations reality, but the problem is only a few of this imagination thing became true..


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