In praise of restrictions.

When I was doing my udergrad work, I studied poetry a lot. I did this from the side of a reader, where I looked at and analyzed published poetry, but the more interesting part of my study revolved around me writing poetry.

There’s a lot to learn from a workshop class in writing poetry- the revisions of a creative work, the blindingly harsh critiques, the relentless need to continue to creatively produce quality work… these were all important experiences for me. That said, the parallel I want to draw today revolves around the use of self-imposed restrictions and their benefit to the end-work.

I had never understood (previous to workshopping poetry) why there was such a large body of work that had been produced of highly formalized structures. If the writers were free to choose the form of their work (as they clearly were), why were they putting any restrictions on themselves at all? Wasn’t it more desirable to work without restrictions? Why were so many great writers forcing their work into the form of a sonnet or a villanelle? Why on earth would you choose to write in iambic pentameter?

They answer, I’ve found, appears contradictory: By choosing and then sticking with self-imposed restrictions, if focuses the creativity of the creator. By not having to entertain every possible direction of work, you become free to deal with the finite issues at hand. Restrictions were allowing the authors of these poems to write better poems than if there were no restrictions. Focus comes from restraint.

A few years later, while taking a figure drawing class, I found a similar experience: by limiting us to only white paper and charcoal, all other barriers and decisions were removed and we were free to focus on the form of the drawing. I didn’t have to think about colors or papers- I only had to focus on the problem at hand. Ditto, too, in the photography I was doing. Black and white photography lives on because of the restrictions it imposes, not despite them.

And so I was pleased to discover the same thing worked with tech in education.

Yes, it’s good to have access to lots of tech. Yes, I believe that different grade levels and teaching styles require different tech. But in any case of tech integration, I find that imposing restrictions can help to focus people’s creativity with that tech. Instead of having hundreds of apps and using six on a given project- what if you limited yourself to two? What if you decided that you’d do your next presentation with nothing but the photo roll? Or if your entire workflow would only use Google Drive and Notability?

I’m not against people’s ability to use lots of different apps- My point is that if you’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of possibilities, or if you’re struggling to find a good method to achieve a goal, consider self-imposing restrictions. Dial things back, allow your creativity to focus, and, in time, you’ll find you may want to slowly expand the tools you use.