There is a paradox when it comes to creativity: the tension between freedom and constraint. While we often think of the ideal creative process as unstructured, open-ended, and free of limitations, research has found that creative individuals – in both artistic and business settings – can actually benefit from self- or externally-imposed constraints.
Most of us cringe when we hear words like ‘budget’. As with the word ‘diet’, images of spartan deprivation, meager portions, and boredom spring to mind. But my experiences of frugality have been exactly the opposite – not tightening, but freeing.
Financial constraints as inspiration
Some of the most beautiful creative works are fraught with constraints – think of haiku poetry, with its 5-7-5 pattern of syllables, or religious art, endless variations on the same theme.
When I lived in Japan, I completed a certificate in ikebana – the art of arranging flowers according to a scalene triangle symbolising heaven, earth, and humanity. More recently, I have been reading and experimenting with ‘constrained writing’, a literary technique which forbids certain things, or imposes certain patterns, such as using only one vowel, or avoiding certain letters. (I just finished reading Ella Minnow Pea, a great example of constrained writing, and there’s also the free-to-read classic Gadsby which uses a similar technique).
Incredibly, research in psychology has shown that we are often more creative when we have some kinds of constraints. Where people have no constraints for solving a problem or creating something, they tend to focus on what has worked well in the past – coming up with uncreative, derivative works. According to Patricia Stokes, author of Creativity from Constraints, such freedom can hinder rather than promote creativity.
Take cooking for example. If you live in a developed country with a moderate income, chances are, you have very few constraints when it comes to deciding what to cook for dinner. In the past, oranges and other seasonal fruits weren’t available all year round. Before the invention of frozen foods, you couldn’t have peas every single night. So you had to be creative with what you cooked. Now, if you want, it’s possible to eat the same thing every day. And this is often what we tend to do – fall back on what has worked well in the past.
Setting yourself a specific budget though, encourages experimentation with new ingredients, leading you to discover new recipes, techniques, and has the added bonus of a more varied diet.
Here are some of the ways that my decade-long experiment with frugality have actually freed me:
Before I got frugal with my shopping, my grocery list didn’t change much week-to-week, and we would cook our regular favourites night after night out of some well-bookmarked recipe books.
Starting to shop seasonally, and according to what is on special gave me the motivation to be more creative in my cooking. Now, looking at whatever fruits, vegetables and meats are cheapest by the kilo, we can easily find new ingredients to add to our repertoire – and search for recipes online.
Walks of discovery
Walking rather than driving isn’t just cheaper and healthier, but has lots of added benefits – the ability to discover places you’d never find otherwise. In Kilmarnock, Scotland, walking around town brought us to the delightfully narrow ‘No Name Lane‘ (a favourite walk, from church to pub, of Robert Burns), which then opens out onto some awesome street art. Needless to say, there’s no way we could have taken this route in a car! And it’s not just sightseeing – walking around your hometown can reveal some delightful hidden gems – for example, my husband came across a shop that sold kilo buckets of nuts for just $5 a piece – that store kept us in work desk snacks for years!
When my focus was more on work, my free time was largely spent passively – watching TV, going to the cinema, reading.
Since looking for hobbies that cost little or nothing, I’ve found much more creative ways to spend my time: learning to play a musical instrument (a one-off purchase, then I found lots of great online tutorials and communities), writing a novel (an essentially free activity, using excellent books from the library for inspiration and joining Nanowrimo), starting a blog, learning new languages via Duolingo, and enjoying making photos and videos.
Of course, I still enjoy passive down-time now and then, but I have learned that throwing money at your free time does not make it rewarding – the thrill of creation is much more exciting.
How can frugality help me create?
‘a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention’ – Plato, Republic (369)
Art imitates Nature, and Necessity is the Mother of Invention – Richard Franck, Northern Memoirs, calculated for the meridian of Scotland (1658)
The well-known proverb ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ means that the driving force for most invention is a need.
If you’re stuck in a rut, why not take on a financially-inspired creative challenge?
- Food: Complete a $21 Challenge. Pick a new ingredient next time you shop and find some recipes.
- Fashion: Shop from your own racks at home, or put together a capsule wardrobe.
- Travel: Check out what quirky free attractions are available in your hometown on TripAdvisor.
- Home: Redecorate using items you already have in your home or find DIY ideas on Pinterest.
How has frugality made you more creative?