Wide Open Canvas

Shawn Blanc on the thread of distraction and constraints, inspired by Matt Gemmell’s Working In The Shed:

When you have a wide open canvas with unlimited time and resources, you’ve got too many decisions to make. If you’re dealing with time, budget, and canvas constraints then many of the project’s decisions have already been made for you, thus freeing up your cognitive resources to focus on how to best creatively solve the problem at hand.

This exact thing is what frustrates me most about the similarities between creative design and life. Whether you believed your parents or not when they said “you can do anything you set your mind to”, the truth is you can and that leaves you a wide open canvas. When you start learning that you can overcome any constraints in your way, they no longer become constraining. By becoming more “productive”–having better ways to get work done–you become able to stretch out the standard limits on time and energy resources.

More time, more energy, more opportunity. These are all good, right?

Without these constraints, a wide open canvas in your life is just as debilitating as in design. Your options become overwhelming and cognitive fatigue destroys opportunity. I’ve been saving up for a trip and now that I have enough money put away to go anywhere in the world, I can’t decide where to go because I can go anywhere in the world.

Don’t think you’re not in the same position in life. Maybe not with the travel example, but if you’re reading this on a computer of any sort (and maybe even on a computer that fits in your pocket!) than you’re of a pretty privileged society. You may have children, debt, and are working hard for both. Still. You’re in a place of enormous opportunity to improve the life of your family, your town, country or world.

You have a wide open canvas. So how do we manage to make the right decisions when we’re overwhelmed by a world of opportunity?

Yours truly, from The Important Part of a Decision featuring Teddy Roosevelt for credibility:

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
—Theodore Roosevelt

The problem with not making a decision at all is that you’re losing momentum and allowing the fear of choosing to grow to a level that can become unsurmountable. Make a decision and keep moving forward, whether it’s in the perfect direction or not. There probably isn’t a right or wrong anyway and the important part of decision making is that you actually make one.

So pick something. Making that first decision will allow you to–even if it’s just artificially and temporarily–put constraints on what you are doing. Choosing a project means you can start to define the scope of it. Give your personal project a deadline. With a wide open canvas, a blank page, the first paint strokes, first sentence, can be hard but once it’s there you’re moving in the right direction. Your first action informs your second and the more you do the more that what you’ve done can provide constraints to help creative decision making for what you’re going to do.

I think the sheer opportunity that surrounds us causes people to hesitate in picking ways that they can be involved in the world around them. The cognitive load of these decisions can be reduced by just making a small decision first and then working off of the constraints which that decision provides.

Start practicing now because there will be a lot of decisions along the way of helping people and changing the world.