Constraints for Creativity

I recently read John Cleese's latest book,  creativity - a short and cheerful guide. All of 100 pages, this book was a quick read that led me to a few interesting insights.

The premise of Cleese's book is about creating circumstances such that people can become creative. Cleese points out that -

creative people are much better at tolerating the vague sense of worry we all get when we leave something unresolved

This, he posits, is how such people are able to defer decision making until they have to absolutely make one. This allows them to leverage their subconscious better and think through the problem.

It is probably obvious that interruption is the biggest creativity killer, as evidenced by so many studies that call open office plans into question. But what really caught my attention was that Cleese outlines two ways creative people resort to removing these interruptions.

One is by creating boundaries of space - this is typically hiding somewhere where people won't bother you. Having headphones on at work is the tech equivalent of this. The second one is creating boundaries of time - typically by "cordoning off" a block of time. Although Cleese points out that this is primarily to block off interruptions, I think the restriction imposed by the fixed time slot is a significant contributor to the enhanced creative output.

David Chang, founder of Momofuku, in his memoir expresses something similar. He talks about trying to write a creative dinner menuright before the doors of the restaurant are set to open.

I've found that the best moment to start working on a new dish is the hour before the doors open, when everyone on staff is rushing to shovel food into their mouths and finish their mise en place; every kind of distraction is sure to present itself. On paper, it is the worst possible time to try to be creative, but for that exact reason you end up with no choice but to make decisions and stick to them.

Reading this brought Tim Urban's hilarious TED talk to mind. The mind of a master procrastinator talks about the Instant Gratification Monkey rising up to the call of the Panic Monster just as the deadline approaches. I think the time restriction effects on creativity underlies that phenomenon as well.

Note to self - set more deadlines!

Chaitra Suresh

Chaitra Suresh

Mom, Engineering Manager, Cook, Musician