The Paradox of Freedom: Why Structure Leads to Creativity and Productivity

If you’ve ever stared down a blank page, laced up your trainers to begin a new workout routine, or decided to tackle something that you haven’t done before – you’ve probably experienced the paralyzing effect of freedom.

When we don’t have a clearly defined structure to work inside – a three act story or a designated route for our run –the different options we have to choose from can overwhelm our decision making. With so many choices, we may fear making the wrong choice, so much so that we simply shut down.

In some ways, total freedom is like white space or negative space (in design). In order for our eyes to be able to discern patterns (like reading these words) white space is necessary in order for us to see the contrast that makes them meaningful. In our own lives, in order to see what needs to be done, we have to step away from the white space and determine the patterns of our own lives.

In The ONE Thing, we talk about going small so that you can overcome this paralysis. When you’re looking at identifying your first domino, you’re looking for a single action will create a path toward your desired result. This path becomes a structure that you can use to keep your efforts channeled.

Creative work operates on a balance like this too. In order to tell a story or communicate an idea, you need to have a way to focus the attention of the reader or audience. Have you ever played with a six year old? One minute, you’ll be a cowboy – the next you’ll find out that you’re actually a cowboy that wrangles dinosaurs – fast forward a little bit more, and it turns out that those dinosaurs that you’re herding were princesses all along! This unrestrained creativity is thrilling, but it’s also exhausting (like playing pretend with a six year old).

Our brains are naturally structured to investigate changes for cause and effect, to create a story that explains why these twists are necessary. If we just take actions or change directions without a sense of forward momentum, it frustrates our innate desire for meaning. So when approaching newfound freedom, it’s a good idea to play to our inhibitions, and create some kind of framework for our actions and thoughts.

Think about playing a game of dominoes.

If you’re lucky enough to draw a domino with a blank, you’ve got a great advantage. Depending on your style of play, you’ve essentially drawn a wild card. You’ve got the ability to be creative with the domino and to play it at the moment it will benefit you most. That moment – where the “meaning” of the domino is established – comes from the structure of the game.

When it comes to our productivity, our ability to create structure that holds us accountable is what will allow us to unleash our creativity and attain our goals. This idea is at the heart of time blocking: if we don’t focus our energy and time so that we’re prioritizing the work that leads to our goals, we risk our momentum. If we don’t create structure, we also find ourselves back in the often paralyzing open space that precedes our first domino.

Whether you’re struggling to set some boundaries around your white space or are hoping to revive your productivity with a sense of play, you can turn ONE action into a daily habit that can start your next journey. We invite you to join our Living Your One Thing Community to get the support of other creative and productive minds, or download our 66-Day Challenge calendar to keep track of your habits!

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