Creativity Loves Limits

My mother was born early in the Great Depression in her grandmother's house.  But when her mother was ready to take my newborn mom and go home, she had a short distance to travel – across the yard and into the barn, where she was living with her husband, my grandfather.

Yes, my mother's first home was her grandparents' barn.

At least it was a roof over their heads.  They didn't wind up living in their car or a shack made of scrap materials.  And they weren't starving.  My grandma and her mother raised goats, rabbits, and chickens and grew a big garden.  My grandfather was able to get seasonal work in the logging industry as a tree climber, scaling tall trees and removing their limbs.  Eventually he found year-round employment as an agricultural land leveler.

But I understand that "less is more" is not a slogan that resonates with everyone.  When you grow up wearing dresses made from flour sacks and going barefoot during the summer so you can save your one pair of shoes for school, you don't worry too much about curating a capsule wardrobe.

Interestingly, several studies reveal that when we have fewer resources, we overcome our natural tendency to behave conventionally.  Many researchers have concluded that in situations of abundance we simply have no incentive to use what's available to us in novel ways.

In other words, resource abundance can actually stifle creativity, but boundaries enhance it.  Necessity really is the mother of invention.

When we face scarcity (or self-chosen limitations), we learn to innovate.  Constraints force us to think more deeply about how to solve a problem.  They require us to act with more imagination.  If you ask someone to design or build a new product, you might get a few good ideas.  But if you ask them to design or build it while sticking to a tight budget, chances are you'll get much better results.  The limits push them to find a way.  Perhaps you've experienced this yourself with an Ikea hack or "Chopped" challenge.

Boundaries bring everything into focus.  When we don't have them, we get complacent and lazy.  We go for the path of least resistance, which is why stuff and busyness can build up so easily when we place no limits on them.  We simply avoid making decisions.

In a way, by defining a box, we force ourselves to think outside of it.

Remember the movie Apollo 13, when the ground crew had to figure out how to fit a square CO2 filter into an opening designed for a round filter?  With only a few materials available in the spacecraft, and mere hours before the astronauts suffocated, those engineers and technicians had to get very creative very quickly.

Or consider Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel's best-selling book Green Eggs and Ham.  In 1960, publisher Bennett Cerf bet Geisel that he could not write a quality children's book using fewer than 100 unique words.  Dr. Seuss not only accepted the bet but tightened the limitations even more.  The story of Sam-I-am uses only 50 unique words!  Geisel put himself in a tiny box to stimulate creative thinking, and the result has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide.

Our culture tells us that limits are bad.  We are labeled "consumers," and we're expected to buy – not just what we need, but whatever we want whenever we want it.  Buy to celebrate, buy to console.  Buy to make your life easier, or more exciting, or to express yourself, or to realize your dreams.  Buy to strengthen our economy.  Even if you have no money, buy.  It's on sale – buy two!

We buy everything we want but are easily convinced we need more.  We have debt – a lot of it.  And if we feel stressed, lonely, or sad, we soothe our feelings by buying something.  Since we place no limits on shopping, we never get creative enough to find another solution.

Too many of us have become used to living like this.  We figure that debt is a normal part of life, and as long as we can pay the minimums every month, what's the big deal?  And since the average U.S. home size has doubled in the last 60 years, and the number of people in the average family has declined by almost 25%, we can keep packing our purchases into drawers, closets, basements, and garages.  If we run out of space there, we can rent more from the booming self-storage industry.  Who needs boundaries?

We do.  Just like my 3-year-old grandson who moves restlessly from toy to toy to toy in his chaotic and overstuffed preschool, yet can play happily and creatively for over an hour with a set of foam blocks and a toy car at my house, we find more depth and flexibility when we confine ourselves to less.

Boundaries can help us stop blowing through the limits of our money, space, time, and energy, bring a huge sense of liberation and relief, and open the door for new goals and ideas.  The great news is that minimalism can help you achieve that freedom now.  You don't have to wait until your "golden years" to downsize.

Self-chosen physical boundaries put a limit on our stuff, and they are a fantastic decision-making tool.  For example, even if you have a huge walk-in closet, why not limit certain types of clothing to a specific number?  You could "allow" only 6, or 8, or 10 pants (trouser) hangers, for example, or one shoe caddy that can hold 12 pairs of shoes.  Decide to keep a certain number of hangers in your closet and limit your clothes to that number.  You will simplify getting dressed and enjoy every piece of clothing you own – and the uncrowded space in which you store it.

This idea works in other areas as well, for example:

  • Choose a box or two and limit your sentimental keepsakes or Christmas d├ęcor to the chosen container(s).
  • Limit your book collection to what will fit in one bookcase.
  • Give your children a shelf, a closet, or another limited space (such as one basket for stuffed animals) and help them choose their favorites to fit within that boundary.  Do the same with your hobby supplies.
  • Pick a number!  You might decide to keep two sets of sheets for every bed, two sets of towels per person, or two mugs for every coffee/tea/hot chocolate drinker in your household.

As you choose your favorite, most-used and necessary items, you start to realize that anything left over is less valuable to you than what you have already selected.  Now you can declutter those leftovers with ease, knowing that you have plenty for your needs and wants.

Few of us actually face deprivation, so I realize that what I'm talking about is a chosen lifestyle, very different from actual poverty.  I don't intend to glamorize true hardship.  But when we place limits on our belongings and activities, we become more decisive, imaginative, and skilled.

The path to a more comfortable and stress-free life doesn't require more square footage, an unlimited budget, or a fancy new closet system.  We get there by looking closely at what takes up our space, time, and energy and offloading what we no longer need.  Boundaries – physical limits, no-shopping challenges, a certain amount of white space on the calendar – help us creatively make room for the life we want.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash


  1. I've been reading about minimalism for a number of years, and have slowly made changes in our home and major changes in my buying patterns. It's been very gratfying in many areas of my life. Your ideas here about it inspiring creativity are spot on. Thank you for your continual words of wisdom and for sharing your writing talent.

    1. Hi Caroline, I appreciate your comment! Congratulations on the life-enhancing changes you've made.


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