Constraints can breed creativity + Limitations can create freedom

Looking for creativity tips? Add constraints or limitations! It's amazing the amount of freedom and creativity that can come from limitations! Click through to find out how

“Dude, I dunno. I don’t think you’re going to like having a CSA,” my friend intones, leveling her eyes at me over the top of her drink. She picks at her appetizer while making that I’m-telling-you-this-for-your-own-good face.

“It’s $400 for four months of vegetables you’d never choose yourself. How much kohlrabi can you possibly eat? NOBODY LIKES SWISS CHARD THAT MUCH, SARAH.”

So I’m preemptively annoyed and swiss-chard-aware when I pick up my first farm share. I squint skeptically into my box of greens and weird herbs. But instead of feeling angry about lemon balm I feel … relief. And inspiration. And a bubbling up of culinary creativity.

I can sprinkle lemon balm on top of all those ripe peaches sitting on my counter! I’ve heard grilled spring onions are amazing! I have everything I need to make a frittata! And, yes, I’m even excited to find recipes that feature kohlrabi.

Instead of wandering the aisles of a giant grocery store, unsure of what to buy, the choices have been made for me. Instead of using all my energy examining produce and deciding what to buy, I can use my energy making the most of what I’ve been given.
Crazy as it sounds, there can be freedom in limitations + creativity within constraints. Click To Tweet

Psychologists call this the paradox of choice; having too many choices actually makes us anxious. We become paralyzed, worrying that we’ll make the wrong choice so we do nothing, and eventually our opportunities pass us by.

And decision fatigue is real! The more decisions we’re forced to make in a day, the more likely we are to make irrational ones. <- why I only seem to mindlessly eat Cheetos after 8 pm.

Constraints don’t have to be about deprivation. They can be a structure that forces you outside your comfort zone. They can be a list you work your way through, or a guidebook for your decisions. 

I’m talking about watching your way through the AFI’s top 100 movies instead of watching whatever’s at Redbox. I’m talking about exclusively reading books by people of color. Or only spending your tourist dollars in cities with populations under 10,000.

Here are some ideas for adding (loving, creativity-inducing) constraints to your life

How to add creative constraints to your professional life

  • Only take on clients who are _______
    Women? Locals? Non-profits? Photographers?
  • Create your next offering in just _____ days
    Book yourself a DIY retreat and make that ish happen!
  • Make your next product using only free images, free software, and platforms you already subscribe to
    Ahem: Unsplash, Canva, Buffer?
  • Give yourself a challenging word limit
    How much can you communicate in 300 words? 200? 75?
  • Do it all yourself
    If you usually outsource, could you create something on your own?
  • Send one networking email every blessed day
    My friend Molly does this and it totally transformed her career!
  • Only check your email at 8 am, noon, and 4:30
    Sadly, this is so much harder than you’d think 🙁
  • Create your next creative project using only ‘old school’ tools
    No computers, no software, no apps

How to add creative constraints to your home life

  • Cook only with what’s in your pantry
    What can you make with red lentils? IT’S A QUESTION FOR THE AGES, DUDES.
  • Only buy local
    Or only things within walking distance!
  • Give up meat for a week
    Or dairy! Or gluten! Or fried food! Or frozen food!
  • Cook your way through a favorite cookbook
    I’m cooking my way through a 70s cookbook and it is seriously so fun
  • Only display photos you took yourself
    Or art you made or things you built or inherited
  • Wear e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g in your closet
    And if you hate it, get rid of it

How to add creative constraints to your social life

  • Get a coffee or cocktail with every Facebook friend who’s local
    And if you don’t want to do that, maybe you shouldn’t be friends with them?
  • Plan activities that don’t involve driving
    Some of my friends did a light rail-centric pub crawl a few years ago and it was great!
  • Plan an activity with just your friends from high school
    Or college or work
  • See how much fun you can have with $___
    Five dollars? $10?
  • Give up complaining for _____ days
    Or gossiping!
  • Give one stranger a compliment every day
    I did this for a month and it was so lovely!
  • Every time you’re in your neighborhood say hello to the people you see on the sidewalk
    Note to self: do this
  • Work your way through your city’s best restaurants
    Or best bars or coffee shops
  • Visit your city’s top 10 tourist attractions
    I’m missing two from this list of Minneapolis’s top 10
  • Choose a favorite food and then try to find the best one your city
    I’ve been trying to find the best hash browns in the Twin Cities: Louisiana Cafe and Hard Times are winning so far

But I want to hear from you! Do you find constraints freeing or stifling? If you’ve had good luck adding some creativity-inducing constraints to your life, please share them in the comments so we can try them, too!

P.S. If this kind of stuff is your jam, I’m in the midst of a five-week spending diet + earning spree. I put myself on a tight budget and take on extra work for five weeks to pad my coffers. You can play along + share resources and ideas in my Money & Happy Facebook group!

P.P.S. This is also the reason I have a New Things Practice and I recommend it to everyone.

Photos by Joanna Kosinska and  Ella Jardim on Unsplash

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  1. Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

    I like how you gave a list for the professional side and for the personal side. My parents and all my friends hate giving me choices because I’m so indecisive. I definitely agree that decision fatigue is real! Hopefully your list helps me!

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

  2. McKenzie

    Love this. Besides being wholly useful, I just started CSA subscription and have been wondering the same thing 🙂

  3. Manisha

    I had that exact experience with the CSA which I kept for eight years. Now I’m not shy at markets nor worried about if I’ll use it all because I’ve learned from my CSA that I can. Recently I asked my hubby to just pick a washer/dryer and I seriously love the set because no decision fatigue. I heard on a ted talk about giving up the drivers seat and being a passenger, in other words not insisting on always being the decision maker…all leads to more happiness. I love this post, Sarah! And am trying to put together a mastermind retreat for the fall. You offer such exciting ideas!!!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      You’re so kind to say so, Manisha! When it comes to ‘researching’ purchases I usually just to to Amazon, sort by user review, and buy the cheapest one with 4.5 stars!

  4. Darcie

    Those red lentils make amazing vegan taco ‘meat’.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Ooohhhh! Duly noted!

  5. Kathryn OHalloran

    Because I’m constantly travelling with a tiny suitcase, my clothes options are very limited. Usually it’s what’s clean and what’s weather appropriate 🙂 I’m going home for a few months soon and I have a heap of stuff that’s been in storage for 2 years to sort through. I think I’ll dump most of that in the charity bin because I’ve not missed something in 2 years, I don’t need it.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! It’s amazing how easy it is to dress when you only have 10 options!

  6. Danielle Zeigler

    Yes yes yes!! I’ve been thinking about this so much lately. I tend to rebel against restraints (stupidly) but the truth is that they make it easier. For so long I didn’t want SEO to be “my only thing” but I’m realizing that by making it my “only business thing” my work becomes easier (by not focusing on trying to master 20 different skills) and I have more creative energy to use for my non-work projects/hobbies.

    P.S. I still think about that DIY retreat alllll the time. Like seriously once a month. It’s probably the blog post that’s stuck with me the most, out of all 87 million I’ve ever read! A 4 day client trip got cancelled in July, so I’m reserving those days as my personal retreat days to finish my new website!

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