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How to make something amazing, right now


What if you needed to build a powerful web app, but you had only ten hours a week for programming? What if you wanted to write a novel, but you had to do it in 30 days? What if you wanted to create a computer game, but you had only 48 hours? What if you had to write, shoot, and edit a short film in 24 hours? Constraints can be your enemy, but when it comes to creative breakthroughs, they can be your best friend.

Shakespeare wrote sonnets in iambic pentameter. "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May"

Some of the cleverest computer-themed poems are haikus:

The code was willing,
It considered your request,
But the chips were weak.

The Web site you seek
cannot be located but
endless others exist

Serious error.
All shortcuts have disappeared.
Screen. Mind. Both are blank.

(Sorry, I don't know the names of the haiku authors)

37Signals built their popular Basecamp app under extreme constraints, and a wildly successful framework, Ruby on Rails, was born in the process.

Big ass budgets and tons of time don't necessarily produce better products. Some of the most addictive games, for example, are extremely-constrained programs like Tetris. Contrast that with a full-motion video, 3D realtime graphics, surround sound console game. Yes, they're apples and oranges, but Tetris and some of other "old-school" (which meant old tech) games are often more fun than the movie-studio-budget games from the big companies. My secret hope is that developing games for mobile phones will put a huge constraint on developers--just like the old days--and bring back some of the creativity it took to make something fun without relying on all that media and processing power.

This blog and many others have talked about constraint-driven creativity a lot, but I wanted to emphasize again that it's not just about inspiring (or forcing) creativity, it's also about getting something done. How many of us keep planning to get around to writing that book... once we've got some free time? How many projects stay on the back burner forever because we just can't seem to make it happen? The creativity-on-speed format can change that, especially if you have support from a group of people doing the same thing.

I won't go into details about the ones I've mentioned before including:
Ad-lib Game Development Society
Laptop Deathmatch
Installation Art Battle
Comic Art Battle
Music and Video Art Invitational

But if you want to write that novel (or just have some fun and see if you can do it), warm up your keyboard because next month (November, 2006) is Write a Novel In a Month time, and the official website (National Novel Writing Month, or nanowrimo) defines the pure beauty (and genius) of an absurd deadline:

"Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down."

There's even a book to help: No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days (yes, that's actually the title) by Chris Baty. And you'll find plenty of support groups from the official website or searching for blogs talking about nanowrimo.

And if you find yourself in Boulder Colorado next week, don't miss The Shootout Boulder, a 24-hour film festival. No, not 24 hours of watching films; 24 hours in which to make a film. The finished movies, in fact, are shown the next day. The event is open to anyone--pro filmmakers shooting it out along with students, families, anyone with a camera and caffeine.

One of the best parts is how they prevent people from pre-shooting their footage--you don't know until just before the clock starts ticking what you must include somewhere in your film. At the last moment, participants get a list of 11 items within a 10-minute walk from where the event begins, and they must include five of them. And one of the five must appear within the first 30 seconds of the movie!

I'll leave you with a few quotes from others who've talked about this:

David HH on Ruby on Rails (born from the constraints on building Basecamp):
"We simply couldn’t go with the mainstream toolset and deliver under those constraints. So we were forced to try different ways, to slaughter the holy cows, to route around that which either takes too long or really didn’t matter in the end."

And from a constraint-driven cooking perspective, the Tastingmenu blog has this to say:
"Unlimited freedom in fact negates creativity and creates laziness. The lack of  rules or constraints make it easy to be random... So why is it that the first thing many chefs do when they get their own restaurant is take a meandering and undisciplined tour of every favorite dish, ingredient, and technique they'v ever encountered? Freedom often kills focus."

And from Marissa Ann Mayer's BusinessWeek article Creativity Loves Constraints:
"Constraints shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Creativity thrives best when constrained."

But... she also cautions with too many constraints, you might just say it's impossible and give up. Her advice:

"But constraints must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. Too many curbs can lead to pessimism and despair. Disregarding the bounds of what we know or accept gives rise to ideas that are non-obvious, unconventional, or unexplored. The creativity realized in this balance between constraint and disregard for the impossible is fueled by passion and leads to revolutionary change."

I encourage everyone to take on some kind of constraint challenge... just for the fun or to experience the feeling of finishing something (without worrying about that pesky quality thing). The Ad-lib Game Development Society's motto (borrowed from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross)
Always Be Closing

So, if you could get out of your own way by being forced to do something fast, what would it be? Write a game? Short film? Book? Anyone considering (or have experience with) nanowrimo?

Posted by Kathy on October 15, 2006 | Permalink


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I found myself permanently stalling until I put seemingly arbitrary constraints on the things that I do creatively. I began entering photo contests whether or not I thought I had the best photo, taking shots that I thought would be composed horribly, and giving myself deadlines for things that didn't necessarily need them. I've actually done well with most of these things. The constraints forced me to do something, and it can actually turn out pretty well.

The biggest kick in the pants I got was watching Ze Frank's show on what he calls "brain crack". I'd recommend it.

Posted by: Chris | Oct 15, 2006 3:45:12 PM

There is nothing that forces me to "get out of my own way" more than an unexpected deadline. I happen to think that I'm a very productive person in a lot of ways. I don't get on those silly artsy kicks about having to "wait for my muse" to move before I make something. That's just code for being lazy a lot of the time :-)

But this July, as I sat sweltering in my studio despite the a.c., I got an email from one of my editors saying, "We need your holiday projects just as soon as possible!" OK then. I went and took a really cold shower and sat directly in front of the a.c., and cranked those puppies out so fast it startled me. I didn't know that I was quite that capable of creating on demand. But don't tell my editor...I want her to think that I'm a bit of a tempermental diva...

So, long story short, it would do me good to get more of these unexpected deadlines every now and again. I don't really *like* them, but I do think they help keep me sharp. And non-diva-ish.

Posted by: Cyndi L | Oct 15, 2006 3:46:37 PM

There's a terrific article in strategy+business on innovation and constraints:



Posted by: Beth Freeman | Oct 15, 2006 5:07:24 PM

From 'Alarm Call' by Bjork:

I'm no fucking Buddhist but this is enlightenment
The less room you give me, the more space I've got

Posted by: Danny Hope | Oct 15, 2006 6:00:01 PM

Great post, Kathy.

Here's one to add to the constraints list. Jack White, talking about The White Stripes (from my upcoming book, Work Different: Design For The Rest of Us):

"A lot about the White Stripes is about constriction and keeping us boxed in. Being extremely stripped down to the most minimal components, mostly revolving around the number 3. You see that [we use] three colors: red, white and black. But also vocal, guitar and drums, or vocal, piano and drums; and, keeping ourselves limited. I think there's more creativity where there's less opportunity. Instead of trying to bring more musicians into the band or more tracks when we record or more time spent in the studio, it's best to explore the creativity with limited means. You get more out of it; something more interesting happens."

Posted by: Tom Guarriello | Oct 15, 2006 6:30:35 PM

I'm an old hand at NaNoWriMo. I entered and 'won' in 2002, 2004 and 2005. And I'm doing it again next month.

It's an awesome challenge because it forces you to stop faffing about and just DO IT. You don't have time to refine that sentence perfectly (that's what NaNoEdMo--National Novel Editing Month--is for in December), you just have to write the damned thing.

Not only that, but the forums are incredibly supportive. People list their 'expertise' so that you can ask research questions. Can't figure out how to end it? Bring in a horde of ninja pirate monkeys and have them kill all your main characters. Plot bunnies run away with your story? Go to the 'adopt a plot' thread and see if you can't find a 'patch' for your novel.

It's not about producing something good, it's about kicking you out of that, "Oh, I'd like to write a novel some day" fantasy bullshit and just producing something.

It's also magnificent for shutting off your inner critic. You don't have time to think about what's good or bad, you just have to get it done.

I highly recommend having a go at NaNo. Even if you don't make it to 50,000 in 30 days, at least you had a red hot go at it.

Posted by: Theresa Cunnington | Oct 15, 2006 7:52:54 PM

I had a good experience with a highly constrained situation recently. I compose music, and I'd always wanted to do something for film. A friend of mine had a five-minute animation he was working on for submitting to some festivals, and I had offered to do a soundtrack for it. This would be my first opportunity to score something.

The hitch was that his rough cut was accepted into a festival before I had written a single note, and I had only about half a week to produce the score from scratch while still showing up at my full time job during the day. I went into a very furious and yet focused mode, where every minute counted, and it was simultaneously exhausting and exhilirating. Normally I spend a lot of time fussing over details, but I had to strictly police that aspect of myself -- how much of this fussing is necessary, and how much is just me being a perfectionist?

I also had to take advantage of chance things as they happened, like the sound of a practicing flautist outside my window that I captured and layered on top of itself a few dozen times to make an ambient bed of crazy fluting (flauting?).

You can read more about this experience if you click on my name and scroll down a few posts. The question is, will I induce this kind of urgency on myself by choice? I should, but if I know I don't absolutely have to meet a deadline, it's too easy to stop at 80% of the way through and say I'll get back to it when I'm more rested.

Posted by: Keith Handy | Oct 15, 2006 7:58:35 PM

And from a constraint-driven cooking perspective [...]

I think "Iron Chef" is a great example! Granted, they have full use of a bunch of different ingredients, but they have to use the one main ingredient in every dish. Show after show they chefs prove creativity within limited bounds :)

Posted by: Alexandra Hill | Oct 15, 2006 8:29:30 PM

Is our need for contraints taught in school? Which essay problem would you expect to have to answer:

A: "Choose a book from the list, read it and discuss how the main character dealt with his/her adversary. What would you have done in this situation?"

B: "Read a book. Write about it."

Is it because teachers are lazy and want reports that conform to a certain format? Or is it meant to make the project easier for the student?

Do you recall ever having been taught to deal with a nebulous assignment, such as the one in B?

In this discussion, are we confusing "contraints" with "goals"?

Posted by: Luddite Geek | Oct 15, 2006 9:49:19 PM

P.S. I just saw this in a local paper.

Is this trend society's subtle way of telling us we're running out of time? ;)

Posted by: Keith Handy | Oct 16, 2006 4:38:09 AM

Excellent post as usual, Kathy.

My need for constraints is endless. My mind fills itself with far too many ideas ever to use or work through, and when I don't enforce deadlines on myself, I inevitably become a victim of the "not enough time" b.s. that so many of us sell ourselves.

Handy example: For months I've been looking at my garage, fiddling with this or that thing in it, "thinking about" how I'll get it all cleaned out, or else "working on getting it cleaned out." (You know you're in trouble when there's so much grammatical clutter preceding "doing it": "I'm about to get started on thinking about trying to come up with a way that I could do XYZ" rather than "I'm doing XYZ.") So yesterday I just started grabbing things and disposing of them: one note to a listserv got rid of an old file cabinet that was taking up space; one pass through a couple of old boxes produced a full trash can, plus a grocery bag full of paper to recycle. I even enlisted my kids to help me move some of the stuff out to the garden shed. (When you've got your older little one saying "Hup-2-3-4" for the littler one's benefit as they carry something together - that's entertainment.) I went through reams of old files and found that I could discard half of them. Easy. Boom.

The job's not entirely done, but wow, it's a far sight better than it *was*. And I'm inspired to do more.

One more example on the balance of constraints and freedom: the widely hailed "American Recordings" albums of Johnny Cash. Rick Rubin got Cash into the studio with a major constraint - just Johnny and a guitar - and a major point of liberation: "Sing anything you want."

Posted by: Tim Walker | Oct 16, 2006 5:43:19 AM

I know you read 37 Signals, so I guess you have seen this post on Project Runway before.

The line "Well, if a wedding dress needs to be designed in two days, it will be designed in two days." sums up what you're saying - work with the constraint, break assumptions to achieve unfeasible goals.

Posted by: Dave Neary | Oct 16, 2006 6:28:25 AM

I think much of the talk about "embracing constraints" is better framed as "defining problems." As Luddite Geek wrote, solving a broadly-defined problem, like "Read a book. Discuss." is hard.

The reason most people don't get anywhere when given a poorly-defined problem is that solving it is hard. Give a person a well-defined problem, and that person will have an easier time. It's not that constraints unleash creativity - it's that constraints, in the problem definition, unleash anything at all. I think this is a pretty important distinction.

I think more accurate advice would be to encourage people to "identify your problem more accurately and precisely so as to focus your problem", not "inject artificial constraints to focus your problem." Of course, if you're just out there looking for a problem, which seems to often be the case in the examples above, you can be as artificial in your definition as you like - nanowrimo is a good example.

To answer one of LG's questions, students are given well-defined problems because broadly-defined problems are too hard. And we are not taught to desire constraints - contraints make a problem easier by simplifying it, and we generally desire simplifications that make our lives easier. To answer another question, we are not often taught to deal with general problems, because there is usually no general solution.

Posted by: James McKinney | Oct 16, 2006 12:54:31 PM

I agree completely. I just finished a book that I wrote in 20 days.

I don't think I could've done it 6 months - I would've had too many choices, too much freedom.

I wrote about the process here, if you'd like to see how I did it :o)

Posted by: Alexander Kjerulf | Oct 16, 2006 12:58:38 PM

I think my comment could benefit from an example. Take the problem "Write a book." That's a broadly-defined problem, and is hard.

Take "Write a 50,000 word book in 30 days." That's a better-defined problem, and is easier, but still a challenge.

Now take "Write a 50,000 word book in 30 days about two gay lovers, closely following the plot of Romeo & Juliet, in a modern context." That's a well-defined problem, and is probably manageable for most people with the will to attempt it.

Well-defined problems are easier to solve, because you actually have a clue what the solution looks like. "Write a book" tells you almost nothing about the solution. But in my last example, you can take five minutes and probably imagine a plausible solution. Knowing your goal, as Luddite Geek implies, makes achieving it easier. For example, you can figure out the steps that will get you to your goal by working backwards from it. I think the reason I don't get some things done is because I don't actually know what I want to get done, like "write a book."

This is pretty "duh" advice, but if you read this blog, you probably appreciate it ;)

P.S.: I think a time "contraint" only counts as a contraint if it changes your problem. On Project Runway, two days to make a wedding dress means no arms, no train. Or in NaNoWriMo, no editing. The time constraint simplifies the problem. In cleaning your garage, the time "constraint" just means "Do it now."

Posted by: James McKinney | Oct 16, 2006 1:13:44 PM

The Oulipo group of French writers in the 1960s believed in creativity through constraint; they produced lipograms -- literature using a 25 letter alphabet. The most famous example is "La Disparition" ("A Void") by Georges Perec, a novel without the letter "e" ("e" is the most commonly used letter in French, too, by the way, and the English translation stays true to the form -- no "e").

Once in college I got a lipogram as a writing assignment -- write a 1500 word short story without using one letter of the alphabet. The letter was up to you, and became somewhat a matter of pride in the class. I choose "a".

It was exciting, produced creative sparks, and I recommend it to anyone suffering from writer's block -- take a break and try a lipogram. When you go back, using all the letters will just seem too easy.

Posted by: Kris Stokes | Oct 16, 2006 1:47:39 PM

Thankyou Kathy for a wonderful article. It inspired me. On finishing the article I immediately tried something that i normally would have put off because of any number of small barriers falling under the heading of "better wait till can do it better". Thanks to your article I just suspended quality in the name of getting something done for once.

So heres what I did in 20 minutes ( that was the constraint I gave myself). I setup a community website around "20 minute website creativity". Heres the site if you're interested


Its not something of pride in terms of quality, but it was great to push aside the things that typically prevent me doing things and see a finished creation for once. And please note, I am not a web developer and consider myself a novice in such things just like many of the nanowrimo participants may be in terms of being novice novel writers.

I think theres a lot of other things I'll do in similar fashion from now on until one turns out to be good enough to follow through on the quality side.

As an aside, I feel creating websites is very akin to an artistic activity such as novel writing or sculpture. Especially when done through the perspective of the creative constraint. This helps ensure that its more a way of giving expression to ideas rather than aiming for a serious business or communication function. Instead its simply an expression of ideas - in this case about social interaction where the website is something tangible to help it coalesce.

All the best, Mark

Posted by: Mark | Oct 17, 2006 2:37:50 AM

Just my take, but Nanowrimo is great for the very same reason that many new forms of creativity have taken hold, namely, the embracing of process over end result.

It's the exact same reason that the Lomo camera craze took off a few years ago (users were encouraged to shoot "from the hip," or were, more succinctly, given the direction "Don't Think"). The results of those shots were, as expected, wildly varied, with no doubt much refuse ... and plenty of what turned out to be unanticipated candids rich with character.

When you have time constraints you consciously or unconsciously do one of two things that might seem on the surface to be diametrically opposite: you streamline...or you leave *everything* in. With an excercise designed to produce not only the ideal creative kick-start but volume, Nanowrimo tends to encourage the latter...in fact, one of the ideas they tout is that submissions aren't read, only word-counted. Participants can therefore, in theory, relax without having to bother with the idea that they are in essence going to be judged via anything other than the sheer mass of their output.

Perhaps the opposite end of the same spectrum is a creative excercise with which I'm admittedly too close. SXSW Interactive features an evening event called 20x2, where twenty participants answer the same (typically effusive) question in a two minute time frame. The results run the gamut, but a realistically safe assertion is that participants must do something different from what Nanowrimo participants experience: stay efficient, cut until you only leave the necessary, the core of your interpretation.

Are there applications for these excercises in our professional lives? Undoubtedly. We each make our own zeitgeist where we find it...but there's something to be said for knowing how and where we might best tap into inspiration on the fly: and why that process makes so many things all the more worth doing.

Posted by: Kevin Newsum | Oct 17, 2006 9:08:39 AM

I've got a lot of work today and I'm pressed for time. Not going to leave a lot of me too commentary but just wanted to say this post encouraged me to get on the ball and get a lot done todaay. Bye for now!

Posted by: Patrick | Oct 17, 2006 9:32:25 AM

I think what you say has alot of truths to it, but I'd love to see a followup post on your thoughts on burnout.

I've seen so many people (including me, sadly) work under amazing pressure and come up with amazing ideas, only to crack under the pressure after a while.

I love your writing, thanks!

Posted by: Jeff | Oct 17, 2006 2:49:42 PM

Absolutely right - I'm sure that most people have been under time (or other) constraints at some stage, and have noticed this phenomenon.
But I've got a question for the behavioural experts here... is the reason that activities that are resource constrained tend to be focussed and productive that the constraints are a way of keeping you in flow? And does this mean that the flow state is (at least partially) controllable? (even if it isn't conscious)

I seem to remember that there was an article some time ago that described the myth of multitasking and the impact of distractions (eg. pop-up email notifications) on your flow - I'm wondering if when we're in a time critical task we (sub)consciously remove those distractions from our environment, or if (kind of more interestingly) we are able to ignore those distractions.

Posted by: omni | Oct 17, 2006 5:11:00 PM

Mac users considering NaNoWriMo might want to take a quick look at Jers Novel Writer (www.jerssoftwarehut.com). The program's got a few bugs, but I moved a novel project into it and am now progressing about twice as fast thanks to the program's sidebar, which gives you easy access to descriptions of characters, places and things; a notepad; and an outline that displays parts, chapters, scenes (and other sections) of the manuscript. This is no doubt why the software author has been able to complete the NaNoWriMo five years running.

Posted by: Karen Anderson | Oct 17, 2006 10:59:08 PM

Other constraint examples:

Indie Game Jam:

24 Hour Comic:

Both are yearly occurences and have spawned other similar efforts.

Posted by: Kim Pallister | Oct 18, 2006 10:39:44 AM

This will be my third year doing Nanowrimo and I'm terribly excited to get started.

I've been writing all my life, though never published--I rarely finished anything until a few years ago (and no one would want to publish that juvenalia anyway) when I got involved in fanfiction. Say what you will about its legality and creativity, but it was a better writing teacher than all the writing classes I took in high school and college.

Fanfic taught me how to be a better storyteller, and Nanowrimo has taught me how to be a better writer: how to make the time to write every day, how to write even when the words don't want to come, how not to leave the computer until the day's word count has been reached, and most importantly how to find joy in what can be a lonely and frustrating pursuit.

It's telling, for me at least, that I've never had a case of writer's block since I started doing Nanowrimo. Now, if I don't know what happens next, I just send in the ninjas.

Posted by: Jenna | Oct 19, 2006 2:05:15 PM

Today I was at an AmeriCorps SERVES conference in Washington State. Our whole theme is creativity with constraints - define your goals, find your passion, find your partners, find your funding, find your volunteers -- it's up to you to find everything to make your program keeping working after you have left a year later. All you start with is a group that shares a similiar goal giving you place to find a desk and a telephone (if you are lucky) and possibly the notes from the volunteer in this position from the year before. Many of my fellow volunteers are revitalizing programs whilst others of us are blazing new paths in our locales.

I'm going to suggest to the coordinators to bring you are someone like you to help people to use the constraints as a jumping point for creativity in problem solving.

Anyway, one should try a VISTA (domestic peace corps - dates back to 1966) year to really open up their creativity - it's a great bootcamp. You don't have to be young, many of us in VISTA (a sub-group of AmeriCorp) are over 40 (some are in their 70's).

Posted by: mary bos | Oct 19, 2006 5:48:02 PM

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