Creativity Hacks: Five steps to using constraints to solve problems fast


“Think outside the box.” That advice is about as helpful under time pressure as telling a three year old to “calm down!” in the middle of a tantrum. We all want to be creative when we face tricky problems, but how?

Many creativity experts advise opening your mind to wacky ideas, and creating a sense of total freedom when you’re brainstorming. I’m here to argue for the opposite: Limitations actually help you create new ideas and solve big tricky problems. Why? My research suggests that too much freedom is actually paralyzing – it provides too many choices and our brains get overwhelmed.  Limitations, or constraints, help you unleash creativity inside your own brain, and inside your team.

I was recently interviewed on the Thrivecast podcast about using constraints to get creative in solving business problems. (All forms of creative work, from running a startup to launching a new innovation demands creative problem solving, and running an innovative accounting practice like the Thrivecast advocates is no different!)

Here are some of the tips that came out of the conversation. Give them a try.

How to use constraints to boost creativity in problem solving

 1. Define the problem.Write down a problem you want to solve in your business. Maybe you want to find a way to double sales, sell to a new customer segment or have a serious problem or threat facing your business and you don’t know what to do about it. Write down the problem.

2. Create some crazy constraints. The next step is to “playfully” think of five different categories of ideas to consider that might help solve the problem – each category is a constraint, or a limitation that helps your think about the problem from a new perspective. One category might be ideas that could get you arrested. One category might be ideas you can’t afford. Another would be ideas that involve other people. How about ideas that use no technology? A last might be ideas inspired by the movie Frozen. The purpose of the crazy constraints is to force your brain to examine ideas and concepts in a new and different way.

3. Get it on paper.
Now it’s time to start writing ideas in each of the five categories you’ve chosen. Set a crazy time constraint. For example, you have three minutes to list as many ideas as possible in each of category. Keep your pen moving! When you get stuck, don’t think… Write ‘ideas ideas ideas…” until you get a new one. There is no wrong answer, there is only wrong process. Take a one-minute break between each category. No analytical thinking allowed. No planning or judging yourself or your ideas as good, bad, possible, impossible. Complete all five “ideation sprints”.

4. Get picky. Is it interesting? Is it smart? Read the ideas you wrote down and put a star next to the ones that seem interesting to you. Not good, interesting. (And you know it’s interesting when you read it and you get a little bit nervous.) Now read the list again and circle the ideas that sound smart. What you’re looking for here is an idea that is both interesting and smart.

5. Go a little deeper. 
Select three of the ideas, preferably the ones that you consider both interesting and smart, and write a one pager on each of the three ideas. You are basically describing those three ideas in more detail. It can still be a little messy. You’re trying to see if you have the “brain juice” to turn your ideas into reality. It helps you determine if you want to create an action plan to make it happen.

Listen to the podcast here. And share a comment letting me know how these tips worked for you!


3 Replies to “Creativity Hacks: Five steps to using constraints to solve problems fast”

  1. Hi Mrs. Joyce,

    My Name is Andrew Langalis and I am a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science. This semester I am in a writing seminar focused on the Oulipo- a French literary group based upon writing under literary constraints. We’re required to write a literature review based off topics within the course so I chose to write on the effects of constraint on creativity in writing and product development. I came across your dissertation through the school library and wanted to tell you that is has been eye opening and most helpful in writing my paper. Thank you for dedicating a portion of your life to its creation. Your work has made my work much easier and more enjoyable than expected and for that I say thank you. Hope all is well. Your blog is pretty cool by the way. There are few professionals with your background brave enough to write the way you do, keep it up.

    All my best,

  2. This is a great post Caneel, many thanks for sharing – I’m also a believer that limitations can encourage creativity. Just telling someone to ‘do whatever they like’ can be completely paralyzing, so setting clear constraints forces us to be creative with the resources that we have to hand.

    Discussions around limitations always make me think of the Apollo 13 mission – you’re stuck in space, you have a limited selection of objects available, and if you can’t think creatively you’re going to run out of oxygen. A somewhat stressful situation, but one that led to a huge amount of focused creative thinking.

    Your post also reminds me of a recent discussion in a LinkedIn group about the way in which laws can encourage creativity (link below). In the discussion I referred to a great TED talk by Larry Lessig in which he gives three useful examples of how the existence of a ‘law’ caused people to challenge it with new ideas. It’s as if our laws constitute the ‘box’ of our existence, and it is important to regularly test these laws to see whether they are still fit for purpose.

    How can laws encourage creativity?

    1. Tony,

      Thank you for your insightful comments. I enjoyed your example of the Apollo 13 mission and the constraints that forced creativity. I will head over to the LinkedIn discussion you provided to check it out.

      Laws and rules likely do provide the right constraints to encourage creativity in positive and negative ways. Society does need the guidelines and framework to follow but these constraints should be questioned, understood and sometimes creatively worked around. Often when faced with these constraints and obstacles is when some of the best creative ideas and solutions can be made. Limitless options can be paralyzing and actually produce less creative ideas at times. By following the exercise I mention above, you are putting your own rules and laws on your creative thinking process to help produce greater results and provide the limitations that our brains need to think creatively.

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