Quit thinking outside of the box

Cognitive benefits of thinking inside boundaries to be more creative

Growing up, I was taught to think outside of the box. I have no issue with big picture thinking, but I have quit thinking outside the box. I’ve traded it for something better.

When people say think outside of the box, they mean well. Encouraging creativity and imagination is a GOOD thing. But the phrase think outside of the box has become a cliché, overused motif adopted by superiors to describe what somebody should do when they simply need a new idea. I believe this is unhelpful advice for people who have to be creative AND make things happen.

Beware when outside of the box ideas surface

“Outside of the box ideas” surface all the time in conversation—especially for those who get paid to do creative work. They often require more budget or different circumstances.

Imagine you manage a brand hosting a one-day conference at a big hotel. A few hundred people will be in attendance. In a “strategic meeting,” someone says, Wouldn’t it be great if we could give an iPad and limo ride to everyone who attends? Well, yeah…that would be great. That’s something attainable with human resources. But we don’t have the budget to pay for 300 iPads, and this is supposed to be an informal event. That’s not a useful contribution! Sure, if the sky was the limit, that’s something that could happen, but that doesn’t mean we should pursue it.

“Outside of the box ideas” encourage thinkers to critique the status quo. But what happens when you must be satisfied with the current schedule? What happens when the budget is as high as it will go? All of the “wouldn’t it be great if”s and “imagine if we had”s float back to the clouds. They evaporate. They are forgotten about—not because they were impossible—but because its time for the real work to get done. Time to get down to business. The person thinking outside of the box has to decide if she is going to get on the bus, or be a dreamer.

A better strategy: think INSIDE the box

I have closely researched creative thinkers who made masterpieces. The results are staggering: creative ideas almost never come from believing the sky is the limit. The best creative ideas grow inside the box. The box is what MAKES the creativity happen. When you grasp this, you’ll start to view creative work differently.

Thinking INSIDE the box is where creativity begins

If inside the box thinking is a better strategy for being creative AND getting things done, you have to have a framework to live by. Here are four ideas for you to consider:

  1. The sky is NOT the limit. Allowing ANY idea into your head will hinder your creativity. Focus.
  2. Don’t reach for the stars, reach for the ceiling. Get a ladder or a chair and make it happen. Stop thinking about it.
  3. The budget is your friend—use it to get creative. Sweat-equity or elbow grease is a beautiful thing.
  4. Make do with what you have. You already have more than enough. Believing you don't is a story you choose to believe.

Case Studies

The following list are a few creatives who thought inside the box to SHIP ideas that got them noticed. These people were not overnight success stories. They made do with the budget and created masterful projects that inspired people. Learn from them.

  1. Dr Seuss: Green Eggs and HamDr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat with only 236 different words, so his editor bet him he couldn’t write a book with only 50 different words. Dr. Seuss came back and won the bet with Green Eggs and Ham , one of the bestselling children books of all time.” From Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like An Artist, page 138.
  2. Vince Gilligan: Breaking Bad You might believe that the crazy successful TV show must have had the ability to do whatever they wanted, right? It turns out, Vince and his writers made decisions based on who was available and how much money was left. They had to think inside the box. Tuco left season 2 because Raymond Cruz had been contracted to shoot a movie. Their shooting schedule revolved around the Albuquerque Airport schedule because their sound stage was nearby.
  3. Mark Phillips: Serial Podcast Mixing engineer & composer Mark Phillips not only wrote music for Serial, he also mixed the episodes in season 1. The production schedule was tight. He had a small window to write musical cues and finish episodes to go live on Thursday mornings. He worked on the music right before it was released. You would think the podcast with millions of downloads would have had a relaxed schedule to let everyone think outside of the box, right? Not so much.

Embrace constraints

If creative work is a regular part of your work, it’s time to embrace the constraints and use “the box” to energize your creative work.

Question: What do you think? How do constraints allow you to be more creative? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. My vision for the comments section is to see a community of people come together and help one another. I want to hear what you thought of my post and how it applies to your work. If I left something out, please contribute in the comments section. I'd LOVE to hear from you and want to keep this a positive, intelligent, well-written comment section.

  • This is not a post complaining that I was told to dream big and then told my dreams were stupid. Have you seen Simon Sinek’s viral interview where he lays out what it means to be a “millennial?” He says millennials were encouraged basically think outside the box, but when they get into the real world, encouraged to get their head out of the clouds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hER0Qp6QJNU

  • Jon Mauler

    I like how you have shifted the definition of “thinking inside the box” to simply mean “creative constrains.”

    The challenge isn’t thinking of something new – the challenge is crafting something of true value and meaning. Something relevant.

    It can be challenging to think of a new idea within constraint, but the result of that idea will more likely offer ACTUAL value.

    I think with this approach, we discover how to get the MOST out of what we have.

    Refreshing post!