Are People More Creative or Productive Working without Limits?

No. Absolutely not. Boundaries matter. One of the biggest threats to not reaching your goal is working without limits. The biggest disaster most people have is when they’re given an unlimited budget, no deadline, or no expectations. I see it all the time in Hollywood, where a movie director has experienced success, so a studio gives him total freedom. Most of the time, that results in a disastrous movie.We also see it with government contracts.

The less accountability, the higher the cost overruns and delays. The truth is, whether they admit it or not, creative and productive people operate best in the context of boundaries. Not rigid rules or unrealistic burdens, but constructive markers and expectations. For me it’s deadlines.

I can’t even really get excited about a project until we get near the deadline, then everything kicks in. If you’re in a situation with no outside boundaries, then impose them yourself. Give yourself a deadline or a limited budget. And if you’re a leader, never let your employees operate without clearly marked expectations. Then get out of the way and let them run. You’ll find it creates far more incentive to excel.

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  1. Great post- your comments are very reassuring. I’ve always operated best with boundaries. They keep me from that ‘thought paralysis’ that ensues when I begin to second guess my choices because “there might be a better way….” I always thought of it as a creative weakness on my part.

  2. Yes I totally believe in creative boundaries; its the old expression “Youth is wasted on the Youth”. When I was younger and had all the time in the world I didnt do much with it. Now that I’m older with more responsibilities, I manage my time alot better and can write about 1400 words of my novel in about 2 hours before work each day.

  3. Great post.  When I was my most innovative, strategic and fruitful in ministry is when my budget was cut.  Cut drastically.  I had to do what was most important to the success of the ministry’s mission and we saw fruit that was unparalled in our ministry.  

    Although I was bent at first because my budget was cut, it challenged me to do things we had never done before.  It was one of my favorite times in ministry.  

  4. Yes, there are those who get lost in the wilderness of creativity when they have no restraints; this is especially true of the novice or the artist who is suddenly thrust into success. And I understand there do need to be deadlines, especially on projects involving lots of people.

    But I would argue that the notion that there is a one-size-fits-all way of working for everyone in any creative field is always going to be wrong for at least some folks in the creative arena.

    I think some consideration should be given to how long the artist has been working at his craft. If he is a professional, a deadline can sometimes be a help. Yet chances are if that deadline is flexible and capable of being missed, his best work results. The muse is there more often when there isn’t a rush, when changes and layout can be considered, when the work can be put aside for a day or two and approached with a fresh eye.

    Truly creative people who have the discipline of age and their craft should answer only to themselves (at least on the human level, theology set aside for a moment). If you want to destroy the creativity of such people, rush them. Set a short deadline. Push them. Call frequently to see how things are progressing.

    If you apply enough  pressure, you can be sure that the result will be a nice hodgepodge of work, perhaps passable but not original (and too often with lots of committee-added changes along the way to run a final stake through the work’s heart, killing what little originality it might ever have once had).

    There are always some restraints to any creative task. But if you’re working with a seasoned pro, let him set his own restraints and let him work at his own pace, taking time to adjust and tune things to his schedule. Yes, you may feel out of control; you might get an ulcer waiting an extra day or two for adjustments that might be invisible to your eye. But the results will justify the lack of externally imposed restraints and deadlines.

    Passable work results with a deadline. True masterpieces are created by artists who work at their own pace with only self-imposed limits. (The notorius over-budget and behind schedule Stanley Kubrick comes to mind; what would his masterpieces have been like had limits been imposed?) 



    Freelance illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Ballistic Media, American Media, Fort Ross, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and other publishers. See my illustrations at:


  5. “If you want to destroy the creativity of such people, rush them. Set a short deadline. Push them. Call frequently to see how things are progressing.”

    Duncan, the way you phrased this displays your personal bias in this area.  THIS is NOT what Phil is advocating.  He didn’t say micro-manage, he didn’t say pester, call or give short deadlines.  If you’re like me and most creatives, the rush is usually because we’ve been screwing around, because we can’t focus until we see the deadline looming.  If you have the discipline of age and craft (Not even sure what this is and I’ve been a professional creative for 20+ years) to get things done in a timely matter, a deadline won’t bother you – you’ll be done within the guidelines, or maybe a day or two later and no one is going to “get an ulcer” because you are a day late.

    That said, I PREFER deadlines.  I need to know when something has to be done so I can plan my time accordingly.  Deadlines imposed do not take away from or rush the creative process.  I loved the argument Don gave on MadMen last week when the pencil pushers from GB complained about paper use: “They use so much paper because they throw away bad ideas.  Part of working with creative people is giving them the freedom to be unproductive until they are.”  There will always be people who don’t understand how to work with creative persons – they don’t take away from the need for boundaries to help prod creatives along.

  6. Duncan is SPOT ON.  One of the greatest sins of churches and non-profits is the lack of respect and understanding of right brain people.  Yes deadlines are important and we all need parameters but you won’t get good work from craftsman unless you understand their craft and their need for space and flexibility within that space.

    Artists do not subscribe to Steven Covey or Kevin Blanchard – some of the greatest inspiration can come outside the boundaries of nine to five.  Because we don’t understand that, we have produced some of the most vapid “art” in the history of the world – what Keith Green used to call “fish and dove junk.”  Christian bookstores are full of “stuff” that compromises our witness and marginalizes the name of Jesus Christ.

    And – important to also note that the Eurocentric model of time is not the world’s standard.  There is for example the Afro-centric model – “time begins when you get here.”  The best creative work happens in a Cristocentric space that is respectful of God’s gifts and is multi-ethnic and multi-racial.

  7. Agreed. Boundaries are meant to pushed. If they are not there to be pushed, I don’t think the creatives will be as inspired to really push the envelope with what they can do. Creatives are driven by what they can get away with–from the bigger explosion nobody thought would work (financially or logistically) to a story that barely fits within the parameters.

  8. Well said Duncan!

    When an “industry” determines and imposes overriding strictures on artistic expression we get exactly what is deserved. Today’s most powerful art form (film) is reduced to producing shallow stories and cheap (artistically) effects to titillate the audience. We are now so conditioned that these examples are held up to be iconic works of some sort. It could be likened to Gutenberg using his great invention to print comic books for the masses instead of the bible.

    A lot of great artistic expression in the past was produced by artists who had patrons that were sympathetic and had some basic understanding of the creative process. Today it should be the job of financiers and producers to provide the conducive environment for directors and other creatives to do what they do best. Today’s media induced method of evaluating the success of a film by it’s gross income is just that. Gross.



  9. Sometimes that happened Will, but more often not it didn’t.  Study the lives of the greatest artists, writers, and composers, and you’ll often discover a history of arguments, fights, pulled financing, missed deadlines, and broken relationships.  We’d like to think that all artists of the past had great and encouraging relationships with sponsors and benefactors, but the truth is, it’s been a challenging tug of war since the beginning of time.  Have a great idea, find the funding, negotiate over deadlines, costs, and delivery – it’s pretty much the same schedule with most of great art.  After all, if it was easy, then anyone could do it…   🙂

  10. When George Lucas made Star Wars he made it on a comparatively small budget and with great restrictions. The result was a landmark, industry changing film event that divided cinema history into two eras in a BC/AD kind of way, and led to two extraordinary sequels in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (both of which were also pioneering films produced under considerable pressure and risk).

    With the prequels, he had unlimited money and creative freedom and they were a pale shadow of the original trilogy. And no – you can’t claim that children of the prequel era will view them the same way my generation views the originals. My five year old son asks to watch the originals again and again. He was largely indifferent to the prequels.

    That said, there are very rare occasions where a blank cheque can produce brilliance (The Lord of the Rings trilogy for instance).

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