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Constrained Freedom

The first thing I though when I started running my own business? “I’ll never have to go into an office again! I can work from home in my PJs and watch Full House reruns every single day for the rest of my life!”

A few months in, I was showering as soon as I woke up, getting dressed, and getting out the door to go work from any coffee shop or shared working space that would have me. I never wanted to watch another episode of Full House again.

The reason? The freedom of doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, got to be overwhelming. Without some routine, without structure or constraint, I lost motivation, my productivity slacked, and my stress level skyrocketed.

No Rules. Just Right?

A world without restrictions or constraints sounds pretty great, right? Maybe so. But I’ve yet to find someone, anyone, who truly craves complete and total freedom.

This same rule applies to the online tools we use and interact with daily:

Twitter limits you to 140 characters. If they changed this, if they allowed you to type whatever you want and as much as you want, would you still use it? Probably not. The allure of Twitter is it’s simplicity and “restricted” UX. The minute it opens the floodgates to a ton of profile customization; The second they lift the restriction on the number of characters, it becomes the next Myspace. Twitter forces you to say a lot, without saying a lot. It’s constraints have made it into what it is today.

Facebook doesn’t allow everyone to be friends with everyone. You have to accept friend requests. There are rules. There are constraints. Otherwise, all of our exes would be writing to each other on our walls. Imagine how totally awesome that would be! 

Instagram, one of my favorite and most-used iPhone apps, has built it’s entire model around constraining the options of it’s users. Giving them some freedom, but reeling things in and keeping their options and interface ridiculously simple.

This article by Nate Bolt over on TechCrunch explains how Instagram’s contraints are a key contributor to it’s success:

“It’s funny how hard it is to pick an interesting image from a giant grid on a web site. It’s also funny how many images we look at each day. What’s not funny is how much all that digital viewing numbs our senses and sucks our souls. I’m speaking in terms of science, of course. But when you display one image at a time in a series that’s essentially customized, based on time, something profound happens. More weight and significance is placed on each image, just because you have to consider it, at least for a split second, in your feed. Instagram forces you to focus.

It might seem trivial, but showing one photo at a time is a design decision that creates more value for each image, and enhances your viewing experience. Plus it doesn’t hurt to have the images trapped inside a beautiful iPhone screen. It almost doesn’t matter who you follow—their photos probably look better one at a time. From a UX perspective, we keep learning that interfaces with constraints are successful, and it seems like such a straight-forward principle (140 characters, ahem), but it’s kind of worthless on it’s own. Obviously you can’t introduce constraints without other elements, which is why this is the last point. There’s something enticing about knowing that most Instagram photos are created on the iPhone, since it introduces a NASCAR-like equality. That makes it fun to see what other people can create with the same technical constraints you have. Photography has always been all about the equipment, and not at all about the equipment. Knowing millions of people are creating with roughly the same camera and app as you makes it exciting creatively. So constraints, combined with quality and an audience are what makes Instagram so addictive.”

The truth is, we want to be constrained. We need rules. We seek structure. It’s not about being held back – it’s about avoiding complete and total chaos. A person wandering through life with no direction, no sense of purpose, no structure, ends up wandering aimlessly, never really accomplishing anything.

Freedom, yes. But constrained freedom. Without a few rules here and there, life would be pretty chaotic and confusing.

Add Your Voice


  1. Hey Matt, 

    Love this post and one that actually could lead to a very productive discussion. You bring up some really great points about freedom. There’s two books I recommend to you on creativity: 

    1) The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry
    2) Presentation Zen by Garr Reynold’s

    Both these books talk about how creative people get when they’re forced to deal with constraints. Garr Reynold’s talks about limiting your slides to 6 words on a page. You’ll never see bullet points in any presentation that I give  because I’ve read that book.  But working within those constraints of only 6 word forces you to chose your words wisely. 

    It’s interesting that you bring up twitter. The constraints are probably what caused the evolution of all the tools that complement twitter (i.e. tweetdeck, buffer, etc). 

    I love that you brought up instagram. I just upgraded to an iphone 4 the other day I’m loving  Instagram. It’s actually a phenomenal relationship marketing tool because it’s this incredibly intimate view into someone’s life and I think companies could be using it to tell fantastic stories about their customers. 

    • I’ll def. have to check those books out. Thanks for the recommendation. In design, development, and overall marketing – the trend is without a doubt minimal. Less is more, when done well. As contradictory as it sounds to so many messages out there, we like a few rules, we want to know the limitations, what rules can be broken, what can be bent, and where we’re constrained. If you give someone unlimited opportunities with every single application and experience, you create chaos.

      It’s a topic that’s very interesting to me – I’m fascinated by these companies (like Instagram) who take a very very simple concept and build a thriving business model.

  2. Your experience from working alone is certainly shared by most people, including myself.

    Psychologists investigating willpower and self-control actually found that the people with most of both traits will consciously establish routines and rules in their day-to-day life, in order to save up for the moments they really need it. If we don’t do that, we “use up” the self-control we have for the daily minutiae and end up repleted later on. The consequences are exactly what you describe: Stress, low motivation and low productivity.

    All that said, I still believe that it matters a lot if we make the rules ourselves (or at least understand the rationale  behind them) opposed to simply living blindly inside the restraints made up by others. As always, there are two sides of the coin! (Disclaimer: I even wrote a book called Beyond Rules, so I’m probably biased. But that’s another story! ;))