Good Constraint/Bad Constraint

Wednesday, August 17, 2011 - 06:48
Truck that got stuck under a bridge - flickr - Kim Scarborough

Good constraints are helpful because they can:

  • make us leave our comfort zone.
  • make us think creatively.
  • make us focus.
  • reduce the number of possibilities to explore and attempt.
  • create tangible deadlines.

Bad constraints are detrimental because they can:

  • demoralize us.
  • reduce the number of valid solutions to 0.

Good Constraints

Tell me a story! It’ll probably take you a minute to think of something because you have no idea what I’m looking for, what I care about, and in what context should the story make sense.

Now tell me a story about the funniest thing you did in high school that you’re parents never found out about. It still may take you some time, but now you have a much narrower focus to work with and can laser in to a specific answer.

I got to experience this strategy first hand during my creative short story class with Juno Diaz (amazing teacher). Every assignment came with a list of constraints that still allowed us the flexibility to shape the story the way we wanted, but it gave us a starting point so we didn’t stare at a blank piece of paper and wonder: Does he want something or sci-fi or historical? Does he want a character sketch or a full plot?

Examples of Good Constraints:

  • Every episode of Iron Chef (mystery ingredient)
  • 4 years for college (definite start and end)
  • Boggle (create words from a specific set of letter)
  • 400 meter dash (definite start and end to the race)

Bad constraints

Create me a fully operational website for $1. Unless you’re willing to work for days for that $1, it’s just simply not possible to complete any web project of signicance at that price point.

Now create an iphone version of your website in flash. By definition, this could not work because apple mobile devices specifically exclude flash technologies from playing for all their iOS devices.

Bad constraints are typically good constraints gone too far, turning challenges into impossibilities. It can be a challenge to deliver a fully custom designed website solution for a large company with a budget $20,000. But that can be a good challenge. However, it turns into an impossibility if the requirement change and now the site must have all the functionality of for that amount of money. That’s a bad constraint.

The Sweet Spot

If you find yourself up against a bad constraint, it’s important to rectify it immediately. If not, you can be placed in a situation that at best has a win-lose resolution, which can be demoralizing.

However, if you find yourself with no constraints, you can find yourself directionless and paralyzed by the possibilities.

The trick is to let in enough constraints in to make it interesting and provide a definite target while not letting in so many that you achieve gridlock.

Where do you find yourself? Too many constraints? Or not enough?


Photo of crunched truck by Kim Scarborough used under the creative commons. My condolences to the driver.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.