If you ever come across an old dirt road, look at the edges. Over hundreds or thousands of trips, the wheels of passing cars have carved a path. That’s a rut.
The popularity of a route creates the rut. But then, eventually, the rut creates the route. The shallow canyons guide your wheels, like a train on its tracks. It’s the way to go, because it’s the way we’ve gone before.
Literal and metaphorical ruts have the same causes and the same solutions. We get stuck in our creative pursuits when we tread the same path over and over. The wells of habit and comfort grow too deep, eventually feeling insurmountable.
A nudge is not enough to escape these ruts. We need to jolt the steering wheel.
When we’re writing, designing, or building, we can unlock new territory by trying something weird. What if your next article had to rhyme? What if your next design could only use Comic Sans? What if your product needed to be made out of paper?
Constraints breed creativity. Orson Welles said that “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” These limitations are the jolt at the wheel that pushes us onto a new path. Creative professionals have known this forever, and the academic literature backs them up. In a review of 145 studies on the effects of creative constraints, researchers Oguz A. Acar, Murat Tarakci, and Daan van Knippenberg found a common result:
“According to the studies we reviewed, when there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance – they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas. Constraints, in contrast, provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas for new products, services, or business processes.”
Play with color: everything has to be in black and white, or you can only use neon. Play with shape: every corner must be rounded, or all your elements need to overlap. Play with words: ban the use of adverbs, or try not to use the letter “e.” Play with time: plan a presentation that can only go 60 seconds, or only publish your work at four in the morning. Play with tools: your next proposal has to be prepared as an Instagram story, or paint your next portrait using a butter knife. Play with materials: what if your logo was made of clay, or your book was printed on a napkin?
If you’re out of ideas, go talk to a five-year-old (or at least your inner one) – they intuitively understand this state of play that we so easily lose with age and experience. They understand that, more often than not, we make our own rules.
The result of embracing these weird rules might or might not be the thing you ultimately use. But the act of making that jolt will, at the very least, push you out of that rut – and then you’ll be off on a fresh path, free to find whatever it is you’re looking for.