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Freedom Through Constraints: How Holding Yourself Back Can Help You Go Further

butterfliesIn a recent guest post I wrote for DIY MFA, I talked about using structure in writing. I explained that not only does using a self-imposed constraint not necessarily lead to trite and contrived writing, it can actually be a great aid to releasing your creativity and improving your writing.

This is the paradox of structure at work – the paradox being that structures are simultaneously constraining and enabling. And this is not just applicable to writing.

We have ample evidence that creativity within bounds has endless possibilities.

  • In an article at forbes.com, Steve Dennings points out the amount of diversity we get from “no more than a hundred varieties of atoms and a couple of primary colors,” “the twelve notes of the musical scale” and “the twenty-six letters of the alphabet.”

  • According to How Stuff Works, there are 915,103,500 possible combinations of Lego’s six-sided, eight-stud bricks.

Also, like in our little thought experiment about divergent thinking, having some rules and structure keeps us from running out of control – infinitely generating ideas while our stomachs growl. Boundaries make you feel safe enough to explore without the paralyzing fear of going too far or just not knowing where to start because there are too many options.

And if you feel you’ve outgrown your boundaries, you can stretch them and explore a wider area, move them and explore a different area, or completely remove them and wander aimlessly for a while.

So what does this mean for the autodidact or the lifelong learner?

1. If you’re serious about studying a particular subject or skill, list your goals and make a plan. (Our autodidact starter kit can help you with that.)

            Knowing that you will only need to spend 20 minutes reading today will help you pick up the book instead of turning on the television. And keeping your goals in mind will pull you back to them after meandering down a rabbit trail.

2. If you want to study a broad subject, break it down into smaller parts first.

For instance, history can be divided up geographically and chronologically. Or the broad field of science can be made into a focused and more easily tackled topic like this:

Science > life science > botany > mosses and liverworts > mosses and liverworts in my area of the world

3. Use structure and constraints to boost your creativity

See what you can draw that fits in that little calendar square, and do it everyday for at least one month. This is a great way to get your creative brain started and focused on drawing or just generating ideas. And it will force you to think of new ways to draw things and new things to draw so they fit in the tiny, square space.

  • Use a new medium

If you’re used to writing in poetry, try prose. If you’re used to sculpting clay, try working with metal. If you’re used to stove-top cooking, try making a meal of raw foods.

Attempting to work in a new medium will make you think in different ways, and that can enhance your work even after you return to your usual medium.

  • Check out the writing constraints I recommended over at DIY MFA

Structure can help you get started, and it can keep you on track, too. Even though the idea of structure feels constraining, it can actually free you up from fear, uncertainty and losing sight of your goals. While constraints hold you back in some ways, they also enable you to think in new ways. And if you ever feel the structure is truly holding you back, the boundaries are yours to break down.

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