Creative limitation

I was reading an article on Flickr, the photographic website, last night. It was suggesting ways to become a more creative photographer and take more interesting photos. One suggestion was to artificially restrict your photographic options to force yourself to think more creatively. For example, to take all your shots of something standing on a ladder or only using an iPhone.

Initially, this approach seems counter-intuitive. Most of us, and “creatives” in particular assume that we are at our creative best when we are unencumbered and without restriction. The imposition of a time limit, financial constraints or the restriction of other resources is assumed to cut down the possibility of a truly creative outcome. But there is another side to this equation.

I’ll sum it up as, “the curse of abundance and the blessing of limitation”. Some times the more that we have the less creative we become. We spend more time exploring options, conserving what we have or organising it. This can be an overwhelming and distracting process, which leaves us with little energy or time to explore, experiment or create.

Reflecting on this personally I realise that I thrive on deadlines (limitation of time) and languish when the resulting output is open ended in its time frame. The latter feeds both my tendency towards perfectionism and its twin procrastination. When there is no time limit or it is a long while away I am tempted to plan forever and not begin, or finish but then endlessly tweak the result.

I am reminded of the lessons I learnt early in life about how to tackle an examination. Allocating time to each question based on the relative mark value ensured that nothing was neglected and one comprehensive answer didn’t leave another three questions untouched and without marks.

Looking back on my life, my times of greatest clarity, priority and achievement have occurred when I have been under pressure and with limited resources. This was the case when I was an impoverished university student buying my first car. It was also the case when I was supporting close family members dealing with major health crises, while supervising a large team of staff.


 So, how can we leverage the power of creative limitation?

First, we can break down a project into a series of mini-deadlines. If an open-ended approach to time management leaves you stalling the start or exploring too many options create a self-imposed limit for the first step and then what follows. This needs to be accompanied by some measure of accountability and consequence. Preferably, it will involve the support and scrutiny of an external party whom you respect.

Second, map out the major steps in your journey, without worrying about the details. Resist the temptation to say this is not possible because things may change. Allow that setting an itinerary provides direction but may still allow for extra stops or necessary detours along the way.

Third, estimate a budget of time and money to achieve your desired result. Both are an approximation of what you assume at the beginning of the journey will be required. They shape your investment but can be modified in the light of your explorations.

Fourth, embrace a spirit of adventure. Adventure assumes that there will be unknowns, risk and uncertainty. These things are not considered to be negative or undesirable in the context of an adventure. They are seen as essential elements to which the alternative is boredom and predictability.

Fifth, enlist some companions to walk the road with you. These people may encourage you, pray for you, and ask searching, helpful and at times uncomfortable questions. People with a “different spirit” like Joshua and Caleb are preferable to the “majority” who offer logical reasons for dismissing the adventure before them based on fear, limited vision and playing it safe. The right people will help you identify the often deeply embedded fears which pull us back.

Sixth, embrace your limitations (either in built or self imposed) as invitations to be inventive and creative. Bemoaning or resenting the restrictions we face simply stifles possibilities and drains away our energy. As a person of faith, the alternative is to become more adventurous and creative by looking for unexpected provision in the midst of whatever is scarce. This requires deeper trust but builds stronger faith as we see God’s faithfulness.

Seventh, work co-operatively rather than competitively. When we experience abundance we can be tempted to pride, ego and self-sufficiency. The alternative to independence is not dependence but inter-dependence. Limitations and restrictions invite us to build stronger relationships with others. But they also require us to do so humbly, admitting that we don’t have all the ideas or answers to anything. This requires honest self-reflection and a willingness to be vulnerable. But the resulting synergy is both more productive and more satisfying than going it alone.

Eighth, practice generosity. Giving away some of our abundance of time, money, energy or ideas is another way of deliberately limiting our resources while benefiting and blessing others. Paradoxically, this can also free us from fear, distraction, ego and pride as we focus outwardly rather than inwardly.

 What restrictions do you face? 

How can you embrace them as invitations to adventure in the company of others?

How can you impose some creative restrictions on yourself?

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