“Positive Constraints” — or, fighting off the crazies

There’s a thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately as we all try not to go totally crazy. Staying at home, dealing with anxiety, working while also trying to homeschool children, worrying about how to buy food with no income, worrying about loved ones — all of us have our own particular battles here, and for my own, I’ve been relying a lot on the idea of “positive constraints.”

It’s an idea that I gleaned from an article I read a while ago about limits, whether self- or other-imposed, and how perhaps counter intuitively, they can actually spur creativity and awesomeness.




I am particularly bad at constraints. I like to think I have no limits, that all options are open to me, that, petulant-adult-like, I can do what I want. But what this article focused on was the positive side of constraints — the idea that limits give you guardrails, if you will, guidelines within which to spend your creative energies. Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham, the first example the article mentions, on a bet that he couldn’t write a story using less than 50 different words. Without those constraints, would his book even exist?

How many of us have written, built, thought of, created something beautiful only when faced with a deadline, or after having been told that there were boundaries we just couldn’t cross? What were all the creative ways we found to work within boundaries, spending our time creating within a safe haven of clearly-defined scope?


(a porch gift wrought of quarantine)


Don’t get me wrong. I am a firm believer, as I mentioned, in smashing through what I or others perceive as limits.

HOWEVER. Right now, I am finding a lot of comfort in positive constraints.

No, I can’t leave my house for nonessential thing — but how, within those confines, will I use my time in the best possible way? How can I make my time at home into a work of art, a time I look back on and am glad I used the way I did? How can I reach out to my friends and family to let them know I love them when we can’t physically be present with each other? How can I create delicious and nutritious meals out of the things we already have in our kitchen rather than just hopping down the street to pick something up at the store?

In short, how can I make friends with today’s limits and spend my energy, rather than lamenting what I can’t do, on what I can? And how can I make what I can do the best possible?


(I can, for example, turn my living room floor into a haven for creative letter-writing;)


For now, positive constraints means lots of phone-date walk-n-talks, lots of letter-writing, lots of sitting on the porch swaddled in my down blanket to pretend I can work outside like normal. Lots of bike commutes to nowhere but home. Lots, I’m trying to say, of things in which I can be fully present, focused on the joy of the moment, the joy of creating something that will make someone else happy, the joy of seeing the bushtits in my backyard or the buds on the red osier dogwood exploding to life. The joy, even within all the craziness, of having a present moment, a constrained time, that I can nevertheless fill to the brim as best I can.

Writ large, of course, our lives are bookended by birth and death; within those constraints, how can we make our short earthly existence a work of art?

So, that’s been my food for thought lately, and “positive constraints” is a mantra I keep coming back to. Maybe it can be helpful for you as well.

(And I definitely recommend reading the article, which talks about this much more eloquently than I do;)

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