It’s no gimmick, and I’ll prove it to you. A simple change to your thinking will enhance your focus, creativity and problem-solving skills. Let’s begin with a few random questions.
What’s your favorite television episode of all time?
What about your favorite song?
Can you share a favorite memory?
Most people need a few seconds or even a minute to formulate an answer. The vast scope of the questions scatters your attention. It’s like picking out an entrée from a menu of sixty-five choices. The extensive selection paralyzes you.
But we could easily remedy the scope challenge from those earlier questions. Let’s tweak them to narrow the boundaries.
What’s your favorite episode from the show Seinfeld?
What’s your favorite song on Spotify right now?
Can you share a happy childhood memory involving your mother?
In each of those three questions, I added at least one constraint (highlighted) to focus your mind and make it easier to search for an answer. It took me less than sixty seconds to add those random constraints. By imposing boundaries on each question, I was able to narrow the range of options and ease the cognitive strain.
Adding constraints to a question or problem can enhance your focus and problem-solving abilities, and even spark your creativity.
Give yourself a competitive advantage
Despite the advantages of constraints, we don’t apply them in the real world. When a dinner party guest asked me my favorite albums of all time, I struggled to answer. I had to sift through an entire life’s worth of music.
The questioner could have added a constraint to help me. But it doesn’t make for good conversation to reply, “Pardon me, but can you add a constraint to that question so I can focus my mind?”
That doesn’t mean you cannot add them on your own. I merely rephrased the question like this.
What are my four favorite “rock” albums?
What are my four favorite “alternative” albums?
What are my two favorite “jazz” albums?
Adding those boundaries allowed me to answer his question in three phases. I could have gotten creative and changed it to something like, “what is my favorite album he’s likely never heard of?”
By defining the size of the sandbox, I was able to narrow my focus and think efficiently. Sounds counterintuitive, right? You’d think a smaller sandbox would limit your thinking and your options. Not so. Giving your mind free reign is like running a race without knowing where it begins; you waste time looking for the starting line.
Adding constraints keeps your attention focused. Too free a hand allows your attention to scatter.
Prove it to yourself
Get out your stopwatch and a pen and paper. Which question takes you longer, the one with constraints or without?
Question 1: List seven things you own
How long did it take you to make that list? Let’s move onto the second question. This one adds a constraint.
Question 2: List seven things in your kitchen
When I added “kitchen,” I immediately thought of forks, spoons, knives, plates, bowls, coffee maker, and cups. In the first question, it took me three or four seconds to focus and think of my first answer. The second question forced me to focus right away. See the difference?
The focus advantage would be enough to make this a useful tool, but the benefits extend far beyond gimmicky party tricks.
Cheat your way to creativity
Whenever you struggle with creativity, add a constraint. It creates tension, a problem you need to solve. That tension sparks your creativity.
Try this creative exercise
Write a story about anything you choose.
Did an idea for a story come to mind? If not try this next prompt.
Write a five-hundred-word story about a high school romance that ended in disappointment.
The added constraints allow your mind to focus on only a few different possibilities, but within those possibilities, your imagination runs wild.
The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution — Igor Stravinsky
If you need to solve a problem, spark your creativity or think out of the box, try adding a constraint. An arbitrary obstacle works well for artistic creativity.
Discover better solutions to tough problems
When it comes to problem-solving, well thought out constraints can lead to ideal solutions.
The ideal constraint will add a conflicting goal, creating tension and forcing you to think outside the box.
How can I eat all organic food and decrease my monthly food expenditure?
You would expect to spend more, but adding this constraint forces you to think of creative solutions.
In this next example, we use the word without, to eliminate the obvious solutions.
How can I fund my business without taking on investors or debt?
Compare that to asking yourself how to convince investors to fund your business. Sure, you might have to go down that path, but adding these constraints forces you to consider other possibilities.
Questions like the ones above give you a goal while limiting your options. That combination forces you to find creative solutions to your problem.
Constraint Building Exercises
These exercises will sharpen your ability to think with constraints. Plus, they’re a ton of fun.
- How would you differentiate two characters of the same sex without using clothing or mannerisms?
- Add two arbitrary constraints to your next blog post. For example, if you’re blogging about a personal experience add this arbitrary constraint: no usage of the verb to be. This limitation will force you to think of other verbs to use in its place.
- Think of a problem you solved recently. How could you have solved the problem by adding a constraint? Try adding one with a conflicting goal or eliminating the obvious solutions using the keyword, without.