Episode 62

Adam & Carlton

Breakthrough Ideas with Creative Constraints

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In this Friday special, Adam and Carlton talk about how putting creative restraints on ourselves actually helps better ideas come to mind. From different kinds to how you can implement some of your own, here is a counterintuitive way to help your creative genius.

Highlights from the conversation:

  • Constraints aren’t always bad (0:51)
  • Types of creative handcuffs (3:47)
  • How to implement creative restraints (18:08)
  • Tweet of the week (29:02)


Links & Resources:


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Transcription generated by Otter.ai

Carlton Riffel 0:06
You’re almost creating this artificial challenge, like, do these things have to exist? Probably not by putting your brain in that, like in those handcuffs in brain cuffs. It kind of just forces you to think of something in a different they’re viewed in a different light.

Intro 0:24
Put that content down, content closes on. What’s your name? Content. That’s my name. You know why, mister? Because you drove a Hyundai to get here tonight, I drove an $80,000 BMW. That’s my name. Content Is for Closers.

Adam Vazquez 0:46
Hello, and welcome back to Content Is for Closers. Today, we’re gonna talk about creative constraint. And when you think about constraints, our initial reaction is typically one against that idea. We want freedom, freedom to think freedom to act, freedom to create, but unlimited freedom isn’t always the best thing for us. In fact, unlimited freedom creates worse environments sometimes than healthy constraints would have otherwise. Maybe when you were a kid, and your parents made you go to bed at a certain time, that constraint gave you the sleep you needed, which kept you from being miserable the next day, or the constraints that come from a particular limited upbringing or history, for instance, if you might have grown out without any money or opportunity, but the constraint of that environment caused you to become more creative and productive as a result. When you learn how to create under constraint, you learn how to exist in the real world, you learn how to innovate and think and negotiate and act in a way that helps you operate inside of the constraint. So that’s we’re going to talk about today. Without further ado, here’s my co host, Carlton Riffel. On thriving under Creative restraint, Carlton, hello.

Carlton Riffel 1:51
Welcome to the podcast. That was quite the monologue. No, as sometimes I thought we’d try out yeah, let’s get it up a little bit. I think in the spirit of this episode, that we’re gonna do this episode with our eyes closed, just to try to try something.

Adam Vazquez 2:05
I feel like our, our talent, and lack thereof, also our proximity to one another, like we we live under, that just making this

Carlton Riffel 2:13
is right there. Your your constraint is your lack of talent

Unknown Speaker 2:22
is how bad you are.

Carlton Riffel 2:24
First thing, you know, there’s so many different directions with ETL. With this, I think this is a great topic, because most people think that creativity is actually a lack of something like that’s our that’s our initial thought, we think I can’t be creative, because I don’t have the idea. And really, sometimes what you have to do, you have to take handcuffs, and put them on yourself and actually make it harder for yourself to come up with something. And in doing so you’re gonna make it easier on yourself to come up with ideas. I think we’ve got some structure here, but we can kind of just go back and forth. Yeah,

Adam Vazquez 2:56
I would be curious, like, what are some of the handcuffs that come to mind that you, as a creator have encountered, or that you’ve seen other people encounter? When it comes to content specifically, yes.

Carlton Riffel 3:07
Especially if you’re like me, and you sometimes procrastinate, I think time can become one of those big constraints. We don’t necessarily think of it as constraint, we think of it as a deadline. But that’s really like, if we had all year to come up with an idea. Sometimes I don’t know that we’d come up with a better idea. We might come up with more ideas, or might come with a different idea. That’s maybe more involved. But sometimes that constraint of having a deadline and just saying it’s gonna be done by by this day, that just forces us to come up with something that’s kind of like your most traditional one that everyone has to operate and sign up. Right.

Adam Vazquez 3:42
Okay. So like, if you have if you have a job and you have a deadline, that’s Yeah, but like, what’s a realistic way you’ve done this? I feel like a million different ways you’ve attacked this. What’s something you found that’s worked when it comes to time constraint? Like, I think you’ve tried Pomodoro at certain times, and any of those?

Carlton Riffel 3:58
Yes, Pomodoro. Specifically, it’s like 30 minute increments, right. And so I don’t know why it is because it means tomato, and I think in Italian, is that yeah, it’s like, you know, the tomato timers. So you’re seeing that, maybe that’s why I have no clue. And somebody else fill us in if I’m wrong. But I do think that there is something to giving yourself artificial deadlines. And then, like, we’ve talked about this before, like saying it publicly, right, like saying, I’m gonna have this by x date, and kind of help hold me accountable. Right. So I think that’s one of one part of it. The other part of it is like if you take what you have to do, and you break it into little pieces, and each of those pieces can kind of represent a day or an hour. And you find a way to essentially set those deadlines so that there are more time based deadlines for each of those little pieces. That can be another way that you you know, that you can get things done with with having a little bit of accountability. That’s the one that everyone kind of has, like we’re gonna launch this podcast episode next week, right? It’s It’s a reoccurring deadline that happens on a weekly basis. But I think you can also go a lot of different directions. And that’s I think that’s where we want to spend most of our time is talking about, like, how can our format of content or how could some of the things that we choose, and maybe even the audience doesn’t even know about? Like they might be totally clueless, as to the constraints, read through some of them? Like if you compare this to poetry, iambic pentameter, that’s a constraint. People choose to make

Adam Vazquez 5:27
that explain that for the non for the non,

Carlton Riffel 5:29
if you did not have a liberal education. Yeah. Yeah, I unfortunately, I don’t have a good enough memory to like, quote, something in iambic pentameter, but it’s like, kind of that ribs. I should have read that a little better. Close. Yeah, it’s just starch. quoting Shakespeare. Yeah, haiku. That’s another one people will write in a haiku. And by giving yourself that creative constraint, you’re essentially making the format, you know, something that you’re choosing ahead of time might be kind of arbitrary. But you’re going to say that I’m going to stick with this. So I think in content, you can find ways to pick topics, or you’re gonna say in this specific episode, or in this specific video clip, I’m going to talk about a success story that we’ve had, the moment that you make that decision, and then you’ve created a constraint for yourself. Yeah, the game is smaller now that you can actually like look around that room and have some, some sort of objective to go back to. Yeah, real quick

Adam Vazquez 6:24
on the on the rhythm thing. And on the constraint of that timing. I have to just, I was we were with some friends a couple weeks ago, and we’re talking about our different like, religious backgrounds and upbringing. Yeah. And one of the girls said, Oh, well, I grew up in a very legalistic home, and I was like, Oh, really? Tell me about that. Classic Andrew Warner question. Tell me about that. The things that she described to me, were not super legalistic. And I was like, Oh, okay. Yeah. And she was like, what about you? And I was like, Well, you know, I grew up in the Yeah, like, very conservative about, for instance, like, you know, syncopation was a problem. And I was sure, and they were like, the whole room stuff. And they’re like, What is syncopation? What are you talking about? Like, you guys know, like, the second in the fourth beat and bow? And they’re like, No, we’ve never heard of any of this. What are you talking about? And I was like, Oh, I forgot how small that world. Yeah.

Carlton Riffel 7:15
But anyway, but I am an examiner was totally okay. That’s right.

Adam Vazquez 7:20
And downstream, me without I’m showing, anyway, do you appreciate that?

Carlton Riffel 7:24
Well, you know, I think one of the first times that I was confronted with this as an actual idea was when I was in school, essentially, I was a comic artist for a newspaper. And that newspaper had some creative constraints. And one of those creative constraints was that it had to be approved that the content of this

Adam Vazquez 7:41
probably true of every Yeah, comic newspaper, it’s just under somebody, you can just

Carlton Riffel 7:45
have like all our craziness. Well, I was kind of infamous for coming up with cartoons that would not pass that approval. So there was a time at which I sat down with the editor in charge, and just had a very strange discussion saying, like, look, I’m coming up with these ideas. I think they’re hilarious. But apparently, they’re crossing some sort of line. And the editor told me, they said, sometimes that creative constraint can help you become more creative instead of less creative. And while I didn’t appreciate the fact that I had to redo some of these cartoons, I did take that lesson and take that application and, and really think about that, when it came to other things in life like art, or things that I was even doing that were outside of the visual creative realm. Because when you do place yourself under that, our tendency is to look at it and hate it, instead of looking at an opportunity to

Adam Vazquez 8:40
do it. I mean, as a consumer, and you know, obviously, a lot of this is, is right now tying it to like, you know, whether it be rules or regulations or more, but I think even outside of that realm, when you look at comedy, like I’m a huge, huge fan of comedy, Kevin Hart, like young Kevin Hart, I really enjoyed his stand up pieces, and his monologues and things like that. And then there came a point where he just, regardless of what you think about it, he just became like, okay, the whole thing is profanity, right, so like, maybe you like profanity video, but to me, it took some of the teeth of the humor out of it, because it was so reliant on trying to get a reaction by using a certain, like, a certain word that’s going to, you know, get away. And it wasn’t like the actual concept it was, let me just find different ways to say this. Yeah, curse word, ya know what I mean? And so that’s an example where it’s like, of course, you have the freedom to do whatever when you’re in that environment, but if constrained yourself, to some degree might have actually made the content and the quality better. So that’s like, I’d say we covered a couple there timing, and then maybe like societal or cultural constraints within whatever organization you’re in. Another one I wanted to ask you about, I don’t remember if it’s on the list or not, but what about like, creative feedback and constraint of the opinion As of others that you’re working in the example I’m thinking of is we did a video for a really good emails. And you remember, we went through that process. And the first, I think we did like five iterations for it. And the first, after the third, we felt like it was really good, and probably got annoyed with the amount of feedback we got at some point. But I’d be curious, from your perspective, do you think the final product ended up better? As a result of, you know, the continual feedback and refining refinement there? Or like, do you think that that made it harder for you to create?

Carlton Riffel 10:35
Yeah, this is a perfect example. Because the creative constraint that we’re putting on us was really related to two things. One was music, having like certain beats happen in a certain way. And then the other one was related to animation. And so with both of those, it’s, it’s a perfect example of there being unlimited options to bring this and compare it to other ways that we can get creative and have these constraints is thinking about style, they wanted to have a certain style. And so that became a constraint in their feedback, that allowed me to kind of narrow things down and make some selections. And then the other thing was, it was collaborative. Not only were they the ones that were the owners of this video and representing their event, but they wanted to see my creativity, they’re trusting my creativity to play a part in it as well. And so in some ways, like each of these are their own versions of a constraint that I think made that video better, even though like some of those initial rounds, were a little bit of a struggle, because you’re trying to figure out like, Oh, I thought this hit the mark. And apparently it doesn’t, let’s try to refactor this, but not just do like one or two tweaks, let’s try to think about it from a completely different angle. And that different angle was the creative constraint.

Adam Vazquez 11:47
Yeah. What about some of the more hard? You know, I don’t know if you’d call them hard. But we talked about like style, timing, you know, some of those things. What about things like, a specific system, or you even had, I think, in the list, you had something about numbers? Yeah.

Carlton Riffel 12:01
So numeric, if I come to this, and I say, when we present our options, see, I’m actually going to have three options for you that’s can be, I’m gonna actually give you the choice of a few different logo options. And then all of a sudden, you’re like, oh, man, I’ve got I’ve got two that are pretty good. But I’ve got to have a third. And I’ve honestly had projects where my third, or the last thing that you created has been the best one, because you’re forcing yourself to come up with something, one thing that we almost never think about, but it’s like, an incredible constraint is the idea of play. And I didn’t put this on the list, but it came into mind. And in the last thing we’re talking about, if we say, we’re just going to play, or we’re going to do a test, or we’re gonna kind of like, run through this for pretend, right? Like all of those are ways of doing something in creating this constraint, that’s actually saying, this is not the real thing. And in doing so we can kind of formulate, and get prepared for the actual real thing.

Adam Vazquez 12:59
So a lot of those are very specific, very, like, you know, on the nose, do this manually. Do it in this amount of time, use this style. What about swinging to the opposite side, like total randomness? Yeah, you know, where you, you don’t know what it is, that’s going to be spit out at you. But you have to respond to it.

Carlton Riffel 13:17
This is one that actually came helped me come up with this episode. Essentially, randomness itself, like randomness can be a constraint. So you create a list of things. And you say, whatever is picked, that is the thing that I’m going to do. Tell them about Scrum. Yeah, so I think we’ve may have mentioned it before on here, but I made a simple app that’s at scramble DOT land. And essentially, it’s just that whole concept where you put in lists of things. And then every week at a certain time, it will send you an email with that thing for that list. So the dinner that you’re going to make this week on Thursday is x No, we’ll just pick. So I think that can be another one, we just made a simple list in click up that has, I think, what we’re working towards a larger number, but every now it’s got like 70 Something, items in it that are content ideas, and it just selects one of those every single day and assigns it. So you know, I think there’s these powerful, even just the idea of randomness can be a powerful way to make sure that you’re like you’re not just sitting down and trying to think of any idea off the top of your head, you’ve got a prompt, and that prompt will help you get to the next step. I think

Adam Vazquez 14:25
that’s something we should publish and make available there. Yeah, like I should, once that list is 100, or even at 70. We should just put it on a page like you do to scramble that land and let people come to it and be told what what asset they need to create or what type of what kind of a continent. Yeah, I think I do think it’s a great point. I think that constraint in our modern society is rare. You know, so much of our parents generations and before that had like necessary constraint like you had to go to your office. or you had to sit at a desk where you had to be limited with a budget or whatever. And so much of our society today is of excess, that, you know, we don’t struggle with some of those things. And so when we’re able to be self aware enough to put this constraint on us, it allows us to create betters allows us to be more productive as a result. Yeah, if somebody was trying to think through how to actually implement some of these things we’ve taught, we’ve given like a lot of different types of examples, how would you start to think about that,

Carlton Riffel 15:32
obviously, your medium itself is a constraint. And I think that there are things within that medium, or media that will help you make further decisions, because because really, at the end of the day, every decision you make is narrowing down into a more concrete thing that will get you to the end result. So with a podcast, in particular, because we’re on a podcast, or with a video, episodic show of some sort, you’ve got your niche, you’ve got these things that you can, you kind of know your audience’s dial into. But even within that, there can be segments and agreeing to do those segments are kind of the the format of those segments. Those can be constraints that help you create something, if you think about it, in general terms, you’re gonna say, I’m going to come up with a segment that helps me get to know my guests better, or I’m going to come up with a segment that helps me in the audience connect on a deeper level, or build trust. And so just make an arbitrary decision about one of those things. And then see what comes up, say if we’re going to be 30 seconds or a minute of something, what could that be? And how could that loom?

Adam Vazquez 16:35
There’s a show called invest like the best Cedric O’Shaughnessy, and he has a question at the end of every episode, regardless of who he’s asking, or interviewing. And he asks, What’s, what’s the nicest thing someone’s done for? Yeah, and it’s, it’s very broad question. And the responses, that means the best part of the show, yeah, because the responses range from, you know, a grandmother who raised somebody, when their parents were unavailable, or out of the picture to FTC chair coming to our company and helping us out. We’re startup in like giving us just random, crazy responses. And it has very little to do with investing, really. But it’s the kind of the golden nugget of the show that he has, you know, made a part of it, because he just asked every single

Carlton Riffel 17:22
so in your life, and do you have any constraints that you kind of practice or you put on yourself?

Adam Vazquez 17:27
Yeah, I mean, I was joking a little bit at the beginning. But I do think that our setup, I don’t think if you were looking at it, you know, five and a half years ago, and you’re like, Okay, how do you build a successful agency? Well, let’s put one of the partners not living in the same city as the others. Let’s do everything remotely, despite being a pretty small company. Like, in my mind, if I was if it was, if I had just complete rein over every decision, we’d all be working together in an office somewhere every single day, just the energy that comes out of that, or the ideas that come out of that. That’s like what I would prefer. But that’s just yeah, the seriously the cultural stuff. Like, when there’s a pit like last night, I had a meeting with new biz opportunity yesterday morning, worked on their proposal last night, I woke up at 430 this morning to work on Marquez had meetings today. And I really want to get it turned out. Like that would be more fun. If we were all doing that. And like order pizza. You know what I mean? Like just Yeah, I think that is just a reality and a constraint, I think we are completely self funded. We’ve never had any outside money or investment, even like debt. And that’s probably not smart. From a business perspective. Like I think there’s places to learn there. But that constraint has caused us to run a, you know, we have to be cashflow positive in order for us to exist. So we always have been things like that, I think even just the size of our camp, we service, I don’t know, over 30 companies a year, and we have six people. Oh, so you know, we punch quite a bit of of our weight just by the number of people have. So I mean, there’s flip sides to all of those things. Right? All those things are advantages as well. But but if you ask constraints, I think those are some of the initial ones that come to mind.

Carlton Riffel 19:09
Because I do think a lot of it is like you’re almost creating this artificial challenge, like, do these things have to exist? Probably not by putting your brain in that light in brain cuffs. It kind of just forces you to view it in a different light. There’s a novel I can’t remember off the fun, the name of it. It’s a man in Russia, and he’s in house arrest. Gentleman Alaska, Alaska. Yeah. Yeah, the great book. So do you know the constraint that’s in that book at him?

Adam Vazquez 19:39
I think he went against the Soviets, I guess. And then he gets put into a hotel. Yeah. And I’ll leave the ground

Carlton Riffel 19:45
house, the rest is the hotel. Well, the way that that author composed that book, he actually started with a timing constraint where this is like not in the way that we think of time where it’s a deadline, but he actually said I’m going to tell this One day, or maybe it was one hour. And then the next part is going to be two hours or it basically would double. So and then a day, and then it would be two days. And then he basically went through telling the story all the way till 14 years, and then reversed it and went all the way back in the way that he wrote. So that’s an incredible constraint, like you think about a novel and and

Adam Vazquez 20:23
so the narrative, like the, the chronology of the story starts with one day, two days, four days a day, I read the book, and it does go out, like you said, probably 1415 years, but I didn’t know that that was intentional.

Carlton Riffel 20:37
Yeah. And then he verses it so that you’re like having this arc that feels like now we’ve watched all this time pass, and then it but it ends with a very personal close up. That’s cool. So I thought that was an interesting version of it, where this author has like, he just decided that that would be an awesome way to tunnel story. And so he put that constraint on him on himself, the beginning.

Adam Vazquez 20:59
But another example is when Casey Neistat decided he was going to vlog every day. And I think he did it for like, two and a half or three years. And he literally published a YouTube video every single day, which Yeah, I don’t, we couldn’t do one of these every single day for that many years. I really, I can’t fathom the work that went into that when you talk about the heavy constraint. But it’s interesting. I mean, it’s like you hear I’m talking now, I heard him on an interview not long ago. And he was saying how that two and a half or three years was pretty terrible. And he did not enjoy it. But he literally doesn’t work now. And it’s not because he’s sick of work necessarily. But it’s like he just did it that had such an impact on his career. And he still gets millions of views every every month on YouTube. And so then he gets paid, you know, an extraordinary amount of money. And so now he’s just sort of taking a sabbatical for several years. And I think it’s interesting to see the other side of that of the heavy constraint. And then sort of the, you know, the release after

Carlton Riffel 22:08
just overview, we talked about, really just the idea of constraints. And we’ve talked about time, format, topic, method, I think some of those are similar to each other stylistic constraints, collaborative, so working with other people, having challenges for yourself, I mean, numeric constraints, systematic constraints, I guess all these are kind of systematic, and then using randomness. So within your content, I would I would challenge everyone here, think of, of just some arbitrary constraint. Or if you’re struggling to come up with ideas, maybe even just take a minute to not look at inspiration, I think sometimes we start there and say, for the next 20 minutes, I’m gonna write and that’s my constraint, I’m gonna write without any looking towards anything, or trying to even find somebody else who’s done it, like how I want to do it. But just saying, for the next independent, 20 minutes, I’m going to focus on doing everything myself writing everything myself. That’s another example of just something that you can do to start your creative gears turning.

Adam Vazquez 23:11
Yeah, I would dumb it down even further. Like, if you’re like, I don’t know, if it gets trained to should be, make something for the next 30 days. We’ve done this a few times on this show. We’ve done it with our blog, we’ve done it across a few areas of our business, but it could also be a sales thing, make a new sales inquiry for 30 days. But whatever your action is, whatever your creative output is, do it every single day for the next three days. I’m talking every single day, Saturday, Sunday, like you know, the whole thing. And I think that will change the way that you think about creation, and it’ll just also form a pretty solid habit as well. Yeah, that’s

Carlton Riffel 23:47
great, man. I think that’s it for me. If you if you don’t have anything else we can do you want to try to do our tweet of the week? Yeah, go ahead. I have to pull it up here. Yeah. So this one’s a little bit about business. So this is Theo Okene are Uh huh. It’s really caught me that that this is such a dead simple business technique. But he said, Tinder, Slack, and Spotify all have this one thing in common. And it’s a high free to paid conversion rate. So here’s five dead simple tips. That’s the thread, forgive me five dead simple tips to convert more users to customers, it’s almost less about the thread because he does have some good, you know, the numbers in here he talks about it being a good conversion rate is two to 5%. So it kind of set some expectations. But he’s just basically talking about like limiting some of the freemium features, and then also having a timely offer to upgrade. Like it comes right when they need it. And then the last one, which I thought was interesting, was like, stop just hounding people to upgrade all the time, or don’t make it so let’s like the opposite, right? Don’t make it so annoying to use the free product that people just don’t like the product at all. Like you can use Spotify and use it with most of its features. But there’s a point where it If you want to be like a long term user of it, or if you want to have everything there and not be bugged by ads, that you’re going to naturally go to that upgrade. Anyways, I just thought it was a clever treat a tweet talking about product and how you can kind of capture people with that freemium model, and then ease them into more of a paid option.

Adam Vazquez 25:18
Yeah, that’s great. Oh, it was it was a tweet tree. Yeah. Yeah. What it was tweeted you. Listen, it’s the end of summer. Next week is Labor Day. We got a few few more weeks of the sunshine down here in the south at least. So our good friend Mickey cloud friend of the show, former guest he had this tweet on Saturday that I just I don’t know why it resonated with me. But I think it’ll send people off into the Labor Day weekend. Well, he said today the lovely Mrs. And I took the kids, one for doughnuts to to the carwash, three to Dad’s office for to the recycling center, five to the grocery store six homemade lunch while she his wife takes a deserved nap with our two and four year old. I mowed the lawn and we have now earned this upcoming Pool time. I don’t know why I was like that tweet made me nostalgic for right now. That doesn’t make sense as a oxymoron. But it was a good reminder for me to take advantage of kind of these last few weeks of summer and just enjoy some of the normal things. So hopefully, if you’re listening to this, you’ve got some good Labor Day plans and would be able to enjoy them as well. And we’ll see you next time. Bye.