I talk a lot about the obstacle of a blank, plain white piece of paper. Freedom is generally a good thing, but when faced with infinite possibilities, many of us freeze up with indecision. Are we not going to choose the right thing? (This is buyer’s remorse with a little opportunity cost thrown in.) Do we have too many ideas and we can’t settle on one?

When we are in control of what we do next, applying helpful constraints can really help us begin to move forward.

Without helpful constraints

I first think of Neo and Morpheus in the construct of the movie The Matrix. It is the empty void of the simulated preliminary world the characters inhabit before advancing to the real Matrix. It makes for a cool scene, but Morpheus explains that it is a place where some rules apply and scenes and things can be added to make it useful.

The Holodeck of Star Trek's post-original series universe is another example. It is an empty room that is only as useful as the situation that is loaded into it. It was a handy tool of the show's writers that enabled them to create feasible leaps into many situations both real and fiction, (fiction within the fiction of the program.) The characters often took on characters from literature.

If you know me well and have a sharp eye, you may have noticed the my inclusion of Figment from EPCOT Center in some of the headers. He is sort of an unofficial mascot, or at least an inspiration to me to represent creativity. In the original version of Journey Into Imagination, there is a tiny but memorable segment where figment is shown in a rear-projection circular screen. He floats around in that similar void, and then plays off of the boundaries of the screen. You can watch it thanks to YouTube.

These are fun examples of a effective use of clever limitation. The way Figment is playing of the circle, takes advantage of the box he is in. The Holodeck is a part of a star ship useful for injecting non-space storylines into the episode. And the Matrix gave Neo a safe-place to discover his abilities in a safe, controlled environment.

First recognize the constraints you already have

I just pointed out how, even in those three examples, there are already constraints present. In your life, look for constraints that are already in place. You may have work deadlines, which are time constraints. You have laws in place to make sure your behavior doesn’t take away the rights of others. Social constraints stabilize the level of comfort and harmony in a specific culture.

Following the recent Harambe incident at our Cincinnati Zoo, I had a fun idea for a creative, potentially viral, play. Everyone I mentioned it to said, “Too soon, Mike. Too soon.” So I have to hold back, self-filter and save that one for a later time. You have to decide how risky your work will be. There are many examples of controversial art, especially within the past century, that are works not of beauty but of shock and provocation.

When in my high school commercial art class, we had sketchbook assignments each week. They didn’t have to be elaborate, fully executed, color illustrations. They were an exercise in exploring an idea visually usually with a simple one sentence helpful constraint. One of the most memorable, to this day, I still think about other possible solutions, was to draw something in a bottle that is impossible. Once you get past drawing things that are just too big, like a volcano erupting or outer space, where else can you go with that?

the television screen was a constraint

In video production there are helpful constraints for the output display, today it is a 16:9 rectangle, but that wasn't always the case. Old television screens had rounded corners and inconsistent visible areas. So we now follow rules of safe-action (90%) and safe-title (80% see the article's header image) areas as we compose elements for a video. These are just guidelines and less necessary today where on in a browser or on a flat-screen display, you can faithfully see all the pixels without fear of items getting lost under a plastic bezel.

What do you want to accomplish?

Most people have a creative project gnawing at them. Have you always wanted to make a children's book or a comic strip? (Those are two of mine.) Maybe writing a novel or performing stand-up comedy are on your bucket list. Is there some limitation that you, being in control, could add to help eliminate the distraction of too many potential options?

>> I'm developing a program through this blog to help motivate participants so that they can set helpful constraints, execute and complete one of those dream projects. I'll be launching the beta version in a couple weeks. If you have a creative project that you've always wanted to do, please let us know in the comments below. If we have enough participants with a related goal, like making children's picture book, we will get it moving immediately and agree on the best motivations for action.

Photo: Old Philips Television Set CC0 - Public Domain