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How Adding Limits can Supercharge Creativity: the 3-Marker Challenge

I love watching kids create. They naturally come up with these little tricks to supercharge creativity, and they don’t even know they’re doing it.

We just returned from a Washington Coast getaway with family, and as usual, the kids taught me a thing or two about creativity. Really, I think we can learn a lot about creativity from kids.

I get creatively challenged all the time. You know how it goes…

You’re sitting there staring at a blank piece of paper or computer screen, and your mind goes blank. nothing. zip. How on earth are you supposed to be creative when your head is empty?

It sucks.
I’ve been there.
I still find myself in that place all the time.

But, maybe that’s not really the problem. Is your mind really blank? Or is it so full of so much everything that your brain throws up a blank, white wall in a self-protective measure?

When you sit down to create, and you’re faced with a blank screen or paper, the possibilities are infinite, and that’s hard to process.

The way to deal with too-much-everything is to narrow things down. Add some limits and boundaries and see what happens. Narrow the focus.

What happens in your brain when you go from “I’m going to write a blog post,” to “I’m going to write a blog post about apples”? I don’t think I’ve ever written a post about apples, but I’ve got to say, I felt a shift when the focus narrowed from the infinite to specifically apples when thinking about this example.

The boundaries help.

The specificity helps.

Now narrow it down some more. Keep narrowing and getting more specific until you have something you can work with.

The 3-Marker Challenge

On a recent vacation, my daughter and my niece spent hours with their noses in their sketchbooks playing what they call, “the 3-marker challenge.”

two young girls sitting at a table and drawing in sketchbooks

They pick a subject (cat, dog, dragon, whatever they think up) and then they each grab 3 markers with their eyes closed. Then they set a timer.

The challenge is to create the coolest looking image of the selected subject, in the specified amount of time, using only the 3 colors they grabbed from the bucket. They draw, compare notes, compliment each other, encourage each other, and then pick another subject and trio of markers to do it again.

They spend hours playing this game, and I’ve got to say it’s the most ridiculously wholesome way I can imagine a couple of 12-year-olds would think of to spend their time.

It inspired me, too.

The real trick of this challenge is in limiting the colors. Just three markers in random colors. That can really limit your options, and it’s precisely those limits that get your brain spinning in different ways. Limitations require you to think differently to get around them, and thinking differently is where your creativity starts to kick in.

This little game works as a warm-up before diving into your creative project, even if you can’t draw and your project has nothing to do with art. It’s about getting your brain to think differently.

If you’re hitting a wall, creatively, maybe your options are too wide open. Try adding some limits. Maybe the scope of your essay is too wide. Maybe you need to narrow your intended audience. Maybe you need to dial in on the focal point of your painting; you can’t focus on everything.

Seattle writer, Judy Schwartz Haley, blogs about raising a toddler while battling cancer, finishing a degree, and fending off ninjas. Also, she needs more coffee.
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