Paradox of the Thinking Box: The Importance of Creative Constraints

It is almost an instinctive thought that creativity is a boundless space, one where the more freedom, the better. But would one truly be able to create and produce in the overwhelming infinity outside the box?

When asked to work on a project with absolutely no boundaries, it is safe to say that an individual would be paralyzed by the lack of guidance. Constraints, in that case, act as directions by emphasizing the limitations to be addressed when one is aiming to achieve a goal or to meet an objective. These limitations could be budget, materials and available information, time, and even the laws of physics (Rodriguez, 2015).

The importance of constraints makes them visibly present among different fields including business, science, engineering, architecture, arts, and writing (Rodriguez, 2015). In all of these domains, there are issues to be resolved through creativity. When given absolute freedom to solve a problem, human cognition naturally refers back to what had worked in the past, leading to uncreative solutions (Kaufman, 2011). In a constantly advancing world, recognizing and pushing the limits of current technology and knowledge is essential in problem-solving and decision making.

One field that promotes the explicit definition of limitations is experimental design. For example, if a scientist is to study the effect of a certain new pollutant on marine life, he or she would have to conduct an experiment within the limitations of the available knowledge, sampling tools, and the latest technologies of analysis. Limitations of obtaining samples will contribute to determining the tested species, the size of the sample (i.e how many organisms or groups), and the time or time period of retrieval. Analysis technologies will dictate what defects or deficiencies will be tested for in said species and how, because it is impossible to test every fish in the sea for every abnormality. A limitation that allows no further discussion of the marine pollutant example is that this article is not meant to lead to a scientific breakthrough, but to discuss the concept of creative constraints.

As for arts, many writers have met the hauntings of a blank sheet. A popular approach to this is flash fiction, writing a story with a tight word limit that forces the writer to deliver a great impact with only a few words (Cooper, 2014). For example, a 6-word story attributed to Hemingway (whether or not he wrote it still is unconfirmed) is:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This 6-word story has resonated with me for years. It is exceptionally short, with no clear introduction of characters, settings, or any of the elements of stories for that matter. But the effect it has on the reader is powerful enough to provoke a thread of thought, to inspire sympathy to a protagonist whom we know nothing of.

Meanwhile, single-line pieces, pointillism (only using distinct dots to form images), and straight-line art are all examples, among many, of awe-inspiring forms of visual arts in which constraints constitute the basis of creativity, not the shackles of it. Phil Hansen, an artist who developed nerve damage that destroyed his dream of pursuing art, provides an interesting perspective on the matter. More specifically, this artist had built his entire passion upon pointillism, which was deemed impossible after the tremors of his hand took away his ability to produce perfectly round dots. Hansen’s constraint was defined by his neurologist, who advised him to “embrace the shake.” Eventually, he was able again to produce art through developing new styles, where his shaking hand would not present a hurdle in his path, but a guide to ideas. Upon noticing how driven his creativity became with constraints, he started experimenting. Drawing on 50 Starbucks cups, using his chest as a canvas, and drawing with only Karate-chops are only a few examples (Cooper, 2014).

As paradoxical as this concept appears, it is fairly simple once understood. We often apply it to enhance performance and maintain solid insight. Better understanding enables a person to focus better on what limitations to apply to avoid both shackled thinking and losing sight of aims. While there are no set rules to dictate exactly which constraints are useful and which are not, keep in mind that maybe, building the box could help you proceed beyond it.

Cooper, B. B. (2014, March 10). Proof that constraints can actually make you more creative. Fast Company. Retrieved July 27, 2017 from


Kaufman, S. B. (2011, August 30). Does Creativity Require Constraints? Psychology Today. Retrieved July 25, 2017 from


Richardson, A. (2013, June 11). Boosting Creativity Through Constraints. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved July 25, 2017 from



Rodriguez, B. (Writer). (2015, June 13). The power of creative constraints [Video file]. Retrieved July 25, 2017, from

The world is ending, but I might be able to save my family if I wash my hands another time 

I sometimes laugh at the devastation, at the conflict of insanity and logic. At my compulsions and my torn cuticles.

I have been a sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder for years. So far, the internet has done a  fairly good job explaining that OCD is a serious mental disorder, not a set of organized pencils nor a neat closet, so let us not get into that. In basic terms, a person with OCD suffers from reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) that lead to behaviors (compulsions) that are done and repeated in order to remove the obsessions or reduce their intensity. Both can take numerous terms, but this is my story.
It started at the beginning of 2011, during a rough time for my family. A wash or two of hands, obsessively setting things in place before doing anything that requires dedication and focus, and repeating every other thing a few times over didn’t sound like a massive problem. The fact that the other side of my family is subtly paranoid about seemingly meaningless things made it all somehow alright, expected, that a bit of me will be off, not quite right, but only insignificantly so.

Let me first mention that I am Muslim, and Islam is a religion that values cleanliness. Before performing prayer, a simple act of washing is to be performed. But what if that simple task became never-ending hysteria of water wasting? It is completely against Islamic virtue to waste, be it water or not. I’ve always been aware of that, but back then it did not seem like an obsession that I was doubting that water had reached every nanometer of my hands. It was only me noticing things, maybe a little to intricately. It is all right to be a bit wasteful, I thought. I deserved the punishment of being wasteful since I had noticed things no one else did.

A few months later, being physically restrained from sinks became a necessity. Long had passed before I made anything clear by asking for help. During that period, the disorder advanced into a complex series of washing and washing again, counting, avoiding spots on the ground that I stepped on unwashed, fighting the urge to wash once more and then submitting to it.  I was aware that it was irrational but still was ignorant, then, to the nature of the problem: that it is an illness.

But I still remember the exact moment that forced me to ask for help. The triggers, which are too dreadful that I am still unable to mention them, had started a few days before. One massive trigger, however, took me to my knees after having pretended for so long to be fine.

“I am tired.”

And I truly was, from something as simple as a two-minute act of ablution to take an hour five times a day, from never feeling stable, from spending hours upon hours putting things in place.

But my acting through the prior months was convincing, apparently, because the person who helped me had not even suspected that whatever was happening was happening.

During psychotherapy, it became clearer that I wasn’t cursed with a superhuman ability to notice. To me, it was liberating to know that something I’d struggled against while dismissing was a disorder; something that could be diagnosed and treated, something that happens to others as well.

Reading about the symptoms shocked me. I learned that the obsessions, excruciatingly violent and “taboo” thoughts had accompanied me (on-and-off) since I was young, perhaps six or seven years old, an entire ten years before the compulsions appeared. That the thoughts could not have been my responsibility, and that other people too frantically count on their cracking fingers to ignore the threats of their brains of divine punishment, paved the way to recovery. As for the religious aspect, I just kept in mind that religion is not meant to make life difficult and that divine punishment will not befall people for merely stepping on a particular, unclean tile.

Finally, the disorder still looms and lingers. I am now aware that my brain is playing tricks, as I occasionally was then. But now, I can defy all of my compulsions.

On a good day.

Another little update

This blog’s now two months old, so another thank you to the 300+ followers and every visitor/commenter/liker!

As for my writing Twitter, it has thoroughly been ditched. I may save it if it means interacting with other WordPress writers since WordPress doesn’t really support direct contact so much. If you want to talk/ be friends etc let me know either here or there.

I’ve been keeping a Ramadan Ramblings Journal to keep me writing, and that has been well maintained. I may publish a few pieces some other time.

On another note, Ramadan’s almost over. It is quite sad, really, but I hope I make as much as I can out of the last days. So if you’re a Muslim, let’s keep it up until the end 😀 If not,  enjoy breakfast on our behalf for another few days.


“You don’t really love your God as much as you say you do.”

I am unaware of the faith practiced by the doctor who said this peculiar, borderline-offensive phrase. Him being Indian, however, may have convinced me of the spirituality of the matter (forgive my occasional belief of this stereotype). It is important to mention that said doctor was not a psychiatrist, but what brought about this sentence was his knowledge of internal medicine.

He’d said that to a relative of mine who had stomach problems, and it somehow might have been the exact thing I wanted to hear.

Because I have a number of such issues myself, I had visited numerous professionals. It was diagnosed over and over again as stress, anxiety, or overthinking. “Try to calm down,” they would say, or, “you’re too young to be this stressed.” Futile, really, because it is almost impossible to be relieved with a few words.

But what this particular doctor did was force an immediate link to spirituality.

His objective was to emphasize the relation between health and faith. No matter what religion is yours, it is human nature to want something to hold on to, to believe in. All the anxiety I have been going through is related, in one way or another, to the future. What ifs and whens are destructive, and being someone of a religion that is not passive, but one that encourages you to try your best and leave it all up to the Almighty, I should be able to overcome such fears. Faith is crucial, but so is the effort.

I had promised that this wouldn’t be another automatic list of things to do when anxiety pulls you down. But always bear in mind, Dear Reader, previous stressful times; you’ve pulled through then and hence are stronger now. It has always been, to me, a comforting thought how today’s struggles will not mean much a year from now. Sometimes matters cannot be helped, and in such cases, acceptance is key.

I hope I do not come across as a preacher because I am not. I am only human. Despite the ease of pen to paper, the application is difficult.

Relieving your fear of the future, letting go of your feelings of inadequacy, and turning away the thoughts of people’s eyes will never be easy to those who have them so deeply embedded.

But just think of the size of Earth, Dear Reader.

Breathe. Take your pills if you need them and keep in mind the following verse of the Quran, the Holy Book of Islam, that I am sure will bring solace to you no matter your faith or beliefs:



click for source




There’s something incredibly happy about being someone to you.

It is not a priority to be a priority to someone to remain in their life. I’ve always believed so. You will definitely mean more to some than to others, but to be content is to know your worth.

I think that that, I have finally achieved.

What had snapped me back to reality was the realization that I do not mean to someone I hold so dear as much as they mean to me. And it really isn’t as bad as I thought.

I had spent long avoiding the fact, too proud to admit even to myself that I wanted to matter. But it suddenly became all right. I would like to matter, yes, but I only have to matter to the person I’m sure to stick by for my entire life: my own self.

The confrontation eased the loneliness. Took it away, even. I am, very contentedly, no longer willing to put effort into gauging my intangible worth to others. It is not an equation to be balanced, after all.

A change of heart is still certainly sad. But it is a part of growth, a part of life.