Does Constrained Creativity Exist?

When we are trying to accomplish a new task, we often find some constraints on our ability to perform. Sometimes those constraints are things like hardware, such as your computer or your tools, sometimes they are to do with software, like not having access to the latest version of Microsoft Office, and sometimes they’re to do with ways of working, such as needing approval to go ahead with changes to a process.

What I’ve learned over time is that:

Most constraints are voluntary.

If you give the time and effort needed to learn more about what you are you using rather than focusing on its limitations, you will often find surprising ways to overcome the challenges you encounter.

As a brief example, today I was developing a workbook that would need to be fully compatible with older versions of Excel and also OpenOffice. The constraint was that the more modern formulas that I had gotten used to wouldn’t be compatible with the older versions, so I couldn’t leave them as those formulas otherwise the workbook wouldn’t give the expected results. I took to the internet and looked up AVERAGEIF for Excel pre-2007 and came across two options. The first was to simply write =AVERAGE(IF…. and continue from there, finally entering the formula as an array using CTRL + SHIFT + ENTER. I’ve already put some pretty tricky formulas in the workbook, so I was far more pleased with the second option I found; using a pivot table.


You see, I had forgotten about a very powerful feature that had been available from very early versions of Excel, because I’d gotten so used to using modern formulas. I know how to use pivot tables, but I haven’t been making the effort to learn more about them, so they aren’t one of the options I usually consider when encountering a problem, which is a shame because they offer so many features with very little effort.

This applies to pretty much any area in life:

Constraints only limit what you can do if you limit your own understanding of all the options available to you.

Voluntary Constraints

Sometimes we create our own constraints without realising so. My current favourite example of a constraint of our own creation is my ongoing battle with emails and Outlook.

Outlook. Is. Limited…. in my opinion. There are other email programs out there with many more features that make dealing with emails less of a chore, or even fun in some ways. They have simple and intuitive features that allow you to track your emails, draft templates with variables that are re-populated each time, ‘snooze’ an email for later.

But, this does not mean that I can’t achieve in Outlook what I could achieve in those other programs, it simply means that I will have to be more creative in how I use it.


My current process of handling emails isn’t working, because I’m not disciplined enough to make it work. I’ve read several guides and articles describing different methods of handling emails and I’ve tried many of them half-heartedly. My process should be that I allocate blocks of time to sort my inbox, and then do so. Emails to action go to an action folder, emails where I am waiting for something go into a waiting folder, emails that are for informative but require no action go to a reference folder, and action items I have finished with go into a complete folder. It’s not a great system and as such, I don’t really use it.

So should I be ditching Outlook in favour of a new shiny application with bells and whistles that will solve all my problems? I’d like to, but am I utilising Outlook to the fullest of its potential? Definitely not.

For one thing, there are a bunch of Outlook features I’ve never used, such as Quick Steps. Despite their cute name, I find them intimidating and have yet to really give them a try. Another thing is that Outlook can also use VBA, which I am very familiar with in Excel. There are definitely some transferable skills there, although with Outlook VBA there is a bit more of a learning curve because you can’t record macros. It would be nice if these features were more user friendly, but my lack of knowledge or skill in using them is my fault alone.

My other failing of course is my system. I’ve not been disciplined with it which is the first problem, and I don’t think it is complete yet, which is my second problem. I feel uneasy with my current system of dumping every informative email into the reference folder, with an idea that I’ll sort it later. I do save attachments that I need to keep and refer to later, but my reference folder is a bit of a black hole. I’m also inconsistent in my usage, dumping completed action emails into a complete folder, even though they could be classed as reference as well…

I have several different options within Outlook really, it’s just a matter of taking the time myself to explore and try them all out properly, only then will I be really sure that I am limited in what I can do in Outlook. I call these voluntary constraints, because I am aware of solutions around the challenges I face in using Outlook, I’m just not utilising them.


I opened by saying that most constraints are voluntary, then gave a positive example of how I overcame a constraint. I then gave an example of a constraint I’m struggling with and the possible solutions I need to address before giving up.

It took a long time to convince myself of this concept of voluntary constraints, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s met with criticism. My only┬áhope is that I have planted the seed of an idea that will help you figure out better ways of working yourself.


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