5 Strategies to Generate Great Creative Ideas by Imposing Restrictions

You want to get something quick onto that scary blank page. Generate great, original, creative ideas by (counterintuitively) imposing restrictions.

You need new, juicy, creative ideas, and you need them now. This is how to get them on tap, stat.

(Yes I do rather love E.R. and I’m binging series after series of Grey’s Anatomy at the moment. But I digress…)

If you’ve got the luxury of time that allows you to experience all that Part 1 of this series has to happen, good for you. You’re likely living your best life. But what if you don’t have that luxury, time is of the essence, and your deadline’s yesterday and and and…

Impose Restrictions

Here are my tried-and-tested, composer-approved methods for idea generation that work on a budget, on a deadline, right now – by imposing restrictions.

(These strategies also work wonders if you’ve got too many ideas, which is equally stressful, in my experience. Decision fatigue and analysis paralysis are real and present dangers, my friend, but a very different boat. Again, apologies, off topic. Now back to the point…)

1. Set a time limit

  • Start with the Pomodoro Technique – 25 minutes to focus on work, then take a 5 minute rest. Repeat.
  • Got that working for you? Then maybe progress to Cal Newport’s Deep Worktimeblocking‘ – plot out larger chunks of undisturbed time, anywhere up to 4 hours a day for the really intense work of generating useful, creative ideas. The important word here is ‘undisturbed’. For valuable ideas to come to fruition you’re often required to ruthlessly eliminate distractions.
  • Set some sort of alarm and don’t work past that time. If you find yourself in flow, there’s always the option to keep going…
  • However, the first few times you do this (or forevermore – you do you) I recommend the time-limit be non-negotiable (this is more of Cal Newport‘s advice). A clear finish time really does focus the mind, not least for the reward of the knowledge that you’ll be finished soon.

2. Create a limited palette

  • Creating a ‘limited palette’ is the opposite of throwing stuff at the wall. Here, restrictions in ‘colour’ force you to get creative with your methods of combination and synthesis.
  • In music, this might translate to reducing your starting materials down to a few choice instruments, or…
  • Creating a batch of musical sound effects with the ‘throw stuff at the wall’ method, then refining that number down to only a select few sounds to experiment with for the whole piece.

3. Revisit an old, unfinished piece

  • ‘Blank’ is too difficult a concept to even bear? Then don’t start there…
  • Use an old, incomplete work as a jumping off point, or strip it for parts to use in a fresh tune. 
  • Reverse it, turn it upside down or back to front. Cut it up and recombine in a random fashion.

4. Revisit the brief

  • A really well-thought-through, clear, concise, effective brief ought to give you everything you need to start.
  • Are there any examples of pre-existing music within that brief to provide a point to jump off? No plagiarism allowed of course, but an analysis of each suggested piece – for tone, instrumentation, rhythm, structure, etc. – can lead to a new fusion of disparate elements. A rhythmic motif inspired from one track paired with instrumentation from another with the harmonic mode of yet another could create a brand new, original piece. Or, at least, it’s a place to start.
  • If the brief isn’t any of these things, perhaps it’s time to give the director another call. Grill them to pin down what they actually want from the music. Don’t know what to ask? Sign up to the mailing list here and get access to my free briefing worksheet ‘Briefing the Composer’ (unsubscribe any time, zero obligation. I promise not to cry).
  • If you don’t have a director or line manager or whatever, become your own – see Writer’s Block? Impose restrictions, a post I wrote a while back with a similar flavour to this one.

5. Use cryptograms and other ready-made idea generation algorithms

  • There are fun methods of generating new ideas that are suprisingly useful if you’re truly, desperately approaching that hard brutal wall of true writer’s block.
  • Generally, this involves the idea that you can apply specific rules or processes to pre-existing material or media to automatically create something new. 
  • Use this new material as initial inspiration for a longer piece.
  • For an example of how I used a cryptogram and the patterns of morse code as idea-generating algorithms in previous work, see ‘The Themes of Flood’
  • Other methods can involve the randomness of dice or a deck of special cards to spark your inner ingenuity.
    • Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies (I have an app; the analogue card decks are expensive and some sets are fiendishly difficult to get hold of).
    • ‘Aleatoric’ music – based on chance and randomness .
    • A colourful tarot deck, used to access your innately intuitive storytelling abilities. I have a lovely limited edition set from an Etsy seller. For the avoidance of doubt, I have no interest in fortune-telling or accessing the occult. However, I do like to chivvy my subconscious to bring me its random ideas, and a pretty-pictured tarot deck works quite nicely when I’m in an open frame of mind.
    • Because they are lovely friends and very a very creative team, I must mention Sarah & Leila’s Creativity Tarot deck. I don’t have a set but they’ve given me a ‘reading’ and it was a lot of fun. It also helped me think about some marketing ideas I had from a new angle.

Sometimes you need to create those beautiful, heartwrenching melodies without the luxury of the time to experiment. You need some time-tested techniques to get those ideas flowing now

I would argue that the freestyling methods discussed in Part 1 are, in fact, essential, and it’s worth considering how you can negotiate more time in future to allow you to fully access your imagination’s creative prowess.

However, we live in the real world, and needs must as the devil drives. A deadline is a deadline, a budget is a budget, and there are only so many hours in a day. In such a situation, these tried-and-tested strategies work, and get something on the page so it’s no longer so blank and scary. 

Good luck. You’ve got this.

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Image: Some of my original notes from Flood, using the cryptogram method to generate one of the central themes. Copyright © H. Fenoughty 2017. All rights reserved.