Is overwhelm stopping you from making progress on a new idea? Are you looking for a way to unleash your creativity and move quickly toward your goals?
In this article, we’ll explore how constraints can unlock creativity.
How Constraints Fuel Creativity for Marketers
Marketers today face increasing pressure to constantly try new platforms, tools, and tactics. The desire to keep up with the latest trends leads to a sense of overwhelm.
However, marketing strategist, keynote speaker, and author Andrew Davis argues that too many constraints, rather than being obstacles, can actually fuel creativity and innovation if viewed from the right mindset.
Andrew suggests marketers tend to say “yes” to new initiatives because they are excited by anything shiny. This next big, bright thing promises to solve problems and deliver results.
Whether it’s the latest social channel, a different advertising format, or an emerging technology like artificial intelligence, marketers eagerly jump on board. This “grass is greener” belief fuels marketers’ fear of missing out, leading them to take on too much without stopping to evaluate if something is the right strategic fit or is moving the needle.
To break out of overwhelm, Andrew advocates embracing limitations as creative constraints rather than obstacles.
Embracing Constraints: The Cube of Creativity
Andrew advises using the “Cube of Creativity” framework to help marketers leverage creative process constraints to boost innovation and outcomes quickly.
The cube has four sides, each outlining a specific type of limitation to embrace:
- Eliminate the Unnecessary
- Define a Single, Measurable Outcome
- Add Unreasonable Creative Constraints
- Raise the Stakes
When faced with limitations, it’s essential to shift your mindset. Use constraints to spark creativity instead of seeing them as roadblocks. For example, if someone suggests starting a podcast for your team, don't get bogged down researching equipment and platforms. Use what you already have to launch something simple in a week.
Embracing limitations gets you moving faster and reduces overwhelm.
#1: Eliminate the Unnecessary
The first step is to clear space by shedding two existing efforts stealing your creative business processes daily. This unlocks your time, budget, and mental bandwidth, allowing you to focus on your latest project.
While eliminating what’s not critical may seem impossible given endless responsibilities, Andrew insists there is always low-hanging fruit. For example, platforms permanently neglected on the content calendar, like an abandoned blog, a stagnant Snapchat channel, or a LinkedIn Live you haven't touched since 2019, are easy cuts.
Next, eliminate something not delivering expected results after a reasonable trial period. Andrew stresses that clearly halting what’s not effectively moving the needle is essential. Stopping activities that no longer serve a purpose can feel liberating and generate creative fuel to reinvest in your more promising projects.
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Imagine waking up in the morning with a full creative fuel tank. Little by little, though, every task, email, and content calendar you have to fill steal your creative ideas. Then, at 2:30 pm, you have no mental capacity left when you have to brainstorm ideas for next week’s TikTok video.
Every time you start a new project, eliminate the unnecessary.
#2: Define a Single, Measurable Outcome
Next, clarify one main goal that defines success for a new project with a measurable outcome.
Pick one goal to focus on to quickly assess if it's worth your effort compared to other tasks demanding your time.
Andrew believes marketers often feel overwhelmed trying to juggle many different projects without knowing which ones actually move the needle on their goals. The key is to be clear and finite with your singular goal. Having a deadline is also helpful.
For a podcast launching to drive course registrations, that singular objective could be securing three new students within three episodes. For an email newsletter overhaul, it may be a 25% open rate lift over six months based on past performance.
Selecting a single priority avoids spreading yourself too thin and helps determine the best use of your limited time and energy.
#3: Add Unreasonable Creative Constraints
Although paradoxical, the third step is to add two unreasonable creative limitations that stimulate out-of-the-box thinking and competitive breakthrough ideas. Andrew suggests two types of creative constraints to incorporate:
Unreasonable Deadlines: Aggressive, bold deadlines ignite a sense of urgency and prompt action rather than over-analysis, like getting bogged down in research on crafting the best Thread. Making the timeline seemingly impossible to achieve forces you to be resourceful in developing a simplified, rapid solution using available resources rather than getting derailed by a quest for perfection.
Let’s return to the example of launching a podcast to drive course registrations. The deadline of securing three new students within three episodes is unreasonable, having never produced a podcast before, yet it’s a concrete deadline.
Other Creative Challenges: The second key element is adding at least one other creative motivating challenge. Additional constraints to consider include budget, staffing, platforms, tools, or methodologies restrictions. Removing familiar crutches spurs new approaches by eliminating preconceived notions of what’s possible.
All the equipment and editing software can be overwhelming when launching your podcast. But if you say you must produce the first episode using only your mobile phone in one week, it sparks creativity within restrictions. Suddenly you're finding solutions with what you have on hand rather than getting bogged down researching microphones.
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So, after eliminating extra projects and identifying a clear outcome (three new registrations in three weeks), add a limitation like iPhone-only recording to foster creativity. You're set up for success with less on your plate, a measurable goal, and constraints to activate innovative thinking. Embracing tight limitations forces you to zero in, overcome fears, and think differently.
Think of any reality competition show. A specific time limit constantly challenges competitors and forces them to develop creative solutions to stay in the game.
Additionally, Andrew gives a personal example of constraint-driven innovation: wanting home exercise options during the lockdown yet unable to install a planned $35,000 endless pool, he improvised a DIY backyard version. Using supplies he already owned—a bungee cord, parachute cable, and carabiner—he clipped his swimsuit to the fence near his existing pool and made his “endless pool” for $3.50. With his goal of staying fit, he got creative with his limitations. The process constraints imposed by the pandemic forced Andrew to find an ingenious, ultra-affordable solution using what he had on hand.
Eliminating the unnecessary, setting a clear goal, and embracing limitations unleashed creativity to solve his problem.
#4: Raise the Stakes
The final creativity constraint involves actively raising your perceived stakes.
What’s at stake if you don’t achieve your defined single outcome? Andrew finds that teams rarely push themselves beyond their comfort zone to achieve greatness against the odds without properly scoping risk and reward.
To raise stakes, highlight potential incentives and consequences of success or failure. This helps you underscore the importance of priorities and motivates team members to rally behind the initiative.
Take, for example, Sweet Farm, an educational nonprofit near San Francisco focused on sustainable farming. Historically, they generated 40% of their revenue from in-person corporate retreats. With events canceled due to COVID-19, they faced a massive financial shortfall.
The founder urgently rallied his team via Zoom, applying the four creativity constraints:
- Stop all non-critical marketing and outreach
- Replace 40% of lost corporate retreat revenue by tomorrow
- Devise a solution that does not require in-person events
- Failure to achieve this threatens layoffs and the rehoming of rescue animals
During ideation, one employee complained about the monotony of video calls. Another suggested playfully “zoom-bombing” boring meetings with surprise farm animal cameos to lift spirits, share sustainability tips, and collect donations. They quickly created a basic web page and advertised $65 “Goat-2-Meeting” services.
Despite initial doubts this zany idea could replace crucial lost income overnight, the team ultimately hosted 8,000 virtual farm visits, raising 5X their revenue goal. This success saved jobs and the farm during an existential crisis.
High stakes drive urgency and priority.
Returning to our podcast example, let's say the person executing this goal wants to start a podcast. That's their dream. The incentive then becomes if they get 3 new course enrollments in 3 weeks, they’ll get a $500 monthly budget for the next year to produce a great podcast.
Now the stakes are clear—if they’re serious about podcasting becoming a reality, they'll need to hit this goal first and see what's achievable.
There are also soft incentives. For example, the CEO of a construction company challenged his staff to hit a stretch target. He offered them Fridays off for the summer as a reward. Despite initially resisting the timeline as unreasonable, the team succeeded with time to spare.
While overwhelm is unavoidable for marketers with infinite choices and distractions vying for their attention, Andrew offers a counterintuitive yet practical solution—imposing constraints.
Through eliminating unnecessary efforts, narrowing the focus to a single priority outcome, challenging teams with seemingly impossible limitations, and amplifying accountability to results, leaders can shift from reactive overwhelm to unlocking creative thinking, innovation, and resilience even in the most uncertain and resource-constrained environments.
Andrew Davis is a marketing strategist, keynote speaker, and author of Brandscaping: Unleashing the Power of Partnerships. You can find him on YouTube. Check out more resources here.
Other Notes From This Episode
- Connect with Michael Stelzner @Stelzner on Instagram and @Mike_Stelzner on Twitter.
- Watch this interview and other exclusive content from Social Media Examiner on YouTube.
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