Something holding you back? Too many rules getting you down? Let’s face it: we hardly live a single day with no limits, no restrictions on our freedom to do whatever, however, whenever we like. Constraints go against our natural craving to be in complete control.
I’ve gotta tell ya’- nobody resists constraints more than I do. Maybe it’s “height-challenged woman syndrome”, ADHD, or my feverish attempt to make up for some “lost years”, but I’m determined to live large. If I’m not careful, limits and constraints bring out my fangs and Wolverine nails. Hold my arms down to tickle me, and you might lose a chunk of flesh, if not an arm. Invite me into a tiny cave- no mater how awesome it is- and you’ll get “Nooo thank you” before the words have left your lips. (I feel claustrophobic just writing that). Limit my options for something I want to do, my hypothalamus lights up signaling the hairs on my arms and my blood pressure to leap up. Adrenaline gets my fight-or-flight muscles ready for action. This little body-mind package can churn out stress-induced defenses so fast you’d think I’d been sucker-punched.
Interesting thing, though: That mind-body rush I get when something constricts my movement seems to spike my creativity, too. Turns out I’m not alone, and not far off in my assessment. There’s actually a logical – a neurological– explanation for what’s happening.
My brain was, like yours, designed to be an efficient machine. When aced with a task or question, if my options are abundant, my brain navigates the most efficient path between what my senses take in and my corresponding response; it has loads of other things to manage, so keeps things simple and direct. So when, for example, I’m faced with a river to cross, my brain offers up the most straightforward solution among the myriad possibilities.
But if my options are limited by, say, hungry man-sized carnivorous plants surrounding me, and the only way I can stay alive is to cross the river right here and right now. Those are serious constraints! My brain shifts gears, slowing all my non-vital activity and devoting all it’s got to two main areas: 1. Staying alive, and 2. Figuring out how to cross that river now. I’m flooded not just with adrenaline, but with a burst of creative ideas for getting across that river before the carnivorous plants engulf me. My brain can, while supporting my vital organs and central nervous system, devote almost everything else to churning out creative options, not just the most direct route that would suffice were there no crazed plants out for my blood. My brain is truly most resourceful when I have fewer options.
So you want creative freedom to find unique solutions or imagineer something original? Don’t run from constraints; welcome them. Try giving yourself an hour instead of a week. Buy a 15-minute sand hourglass. Start with three options rather than filling a page with initial ideas. When faced with any kind of limits, any constraint whatsoever, your imagination opens wide. You can more clearly see new connections between circumstances, people and things, and find fresh solutions to puzzling problems.
Whether life places constraints on us or we place constraints on ourselves, we can see them as blessings in disguise. Limits actually focus our vision and germinate innovative ways to understand, explore, tackle or reflect the world around us. If, that is, we stop ruminating on what limits us. If we’re lucky, the adrenaline will give us a quick energy boost to get us moving on all those creative ideas.
“The imagination is unleashed by constraints. You break out of the box by stepping into shackles.”
Jonah Lehrer (2010). “How We Decide”, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Be sure to let me know your thoughts about constraints, limitations, boundaries and such; I’d love to hear from you! Have any self-imposed constraints worked for you? If so, what were they? You can leave a comment below or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org .