Find out how limits can free your creativity


If you're a creative professional, already somewhat established in your field and if you have quite some assignments; after some time you might feel you get stuck. This is often the case when you have a number of assignments to do and limited time (sound familiar?). You resort to tried and tested ways of working i.e. you're getting into a routine. You are delivering quality work, your clients are still enthusiast about it. This is a good thing, obviously, but there's this nagging feeling inside you that you are no longer satisfied. You have this feeling you are stagnating. Go there often enough and even your clients might notice that your work has lost some of its sparkle. What can you do about this? Let's explore...

First let us look at creativity itself a little closer: I believe creativity serves a vital function and has done so from the time the earliest humans roamed the earth. It is a function we need to solve problems, to deal with unexpected situations. Like how to catch our next meal for example, or how to escape from that hungry pack of lions. Or how to make our way across the stream to those juicy berries. Later on in evolution we got this notion that with creativity we could also enhance other aspects of our lives. Somewhere along the line the arts emerged, but at first in a very practical way too. Like how to keep the Goddesses and Gods pleased for example. In our current, mostly secure lives, the role of creativity has changed to adding beauty and happiness (or sales for that matter). But what does all this have to do with your current assignment?

In the creative professions isn't it about freedom? Creative freedom? To a degree yes. But it is my experience that creativity functions best when there is a pressing need for it. When there is a very specific situation to find a solution to. And that's something that hardly exists if there is complete creative freedom... Funny, eh? Of course there are always some limitations set by your clients' demands, but sticking to that alone might induce the problem described in the introduction. So let's see if we can create some 'problems' to give your creativity that needed boost! You can describe a problem as "a set of limiting circumstances". So to unleash your creativity you might as well set up some artificial limits, because these limits push you away from your habitual 'solutions', thus prompting you to find a different path. Of course you obviously want to produce better quality work instead of worse, so you need to pick these limits intelligently. Here's how to go about that:

First things first: since you probably mostly work on assignments for other people, you want to make sure that whatever limitations you choose are in line with your clients' brief. Or better yet: that can enhance your work to be in the clients' advantage. Also you want to keep your own goals in sight, so set up limits that make sense with respect to what you are doing now and where you want to go. Next, time pressure is an aspect to keep in mind: I believe that creativity is stimulated the most when there is urgency, some time pressure (if you're trying to evade that chasing lion, you better think of something now!). But be careful that the limits you set do not have an adverse effect on the quality of your work. And finally, if you have a number of similar assignments, do not set different limits on each one. Stick with the same limits for a short while. Set limits that are challenging but not jeopardise the quality of your work.

Here's my personal approach with this:
Like most creative professionals, I like to keep studying to expand my skills. So often I look through my briefing notes before I actually start writing music to find a link to what I'm currently studying (or studied recently). Of course they have to be in line with where I want to go musically. I then quickly review the relevant study-material and set an artificial limit based on that. I try to be very careful to select something that can benefit my client as well. Very often there are clues in the brief that lead me to an aspect of my work that I can improve upon by setting an artificial limit. Generally the quality of my work improves as a result of this, and most of the time it's a lot of fun as well. I also found that often I came up with partial solutions that I couldn't use for that project, but that were life-savers later on in completely different projects (it really pays to keep your botched experiments...)! So, have you ever used this approach and want to share your experiences? Or are you trying it as a result of reading this article? Then please share your experiences in the comments below!

And finally, just for fun: consider doing this in other aspects of your life as well! For example, even though my native language is Dutch, I set up my computers completely in English and force myself to do virtually anything I do on the computers in English as well (my GTD lists, my notes, etc.). As a results, my English skills have improved tremendously (maybe I should try Russian next....).

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