The liberation of limitations

I recently came across an article in Copyblogger that really resonated with me. (If you’re a regular reader of Copyblogger, you’ll probably say: “Don’t all their posts do that?).

This particular post was about how email design limitations may see problematic at first but are actually liberating. In the post, the writer talks about learning guitar and how his guitar teacher forced him to practice using only two fingers. At first he found it to be frustrating but then it became freeing. The limitation ultimately liberated him.

This article was great for two reasons:

First, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to increase readership, click-throughs, and sales in some of the email newsletters I work on and I came away with a couple of really actionable ideas I will be implementing immediately. If you do email marketing, check the article out for yourself and let it inspire you to re-think how limiting email really is.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it got me thinking about the value of limitations. Limitations are good. No limits are actually very difficult to work with. I’ll use the example of my own business. Here on AaronHoos.com, I can write about anything I want because this site is really just my brain online. It’s the stuff I think about and am paying attention to right now. I don’t really focus on a particular category (well, I write about business, finance, and real estate but also about other things so it’s pretty wide open). Compare that to a couple of other brands I run (like Real Estate Investing Copywriter, for example). On my “anything goes” site, my readership is okay (consistent but not stellar) and I have a huge list of potential topics to write about but frequently think “what should I write about today?”; meanwhile, the real estate investing copywriter site, my readership is skyrocketing in a very short time and I’m frequently thinking trying to narrow the topic that I am writing on because there is so much to talk about in that category. That’s the power of limitation.

I also see this same thing happening with a client for whom I do a bit of technical writing. They have fairly rigorously defined restrictions on the type of technical documents and how the information is communicated. And sometimes it seems to be very difficult to make some of their topics fit within the confines of the style guide. And yet, once we have the limits set, we can get creative and the information fits in… perfectly! I’m constantly amazed at how often that happens (even though I shouldn’t be amazed by it at this point).

You see it when you practice something over and over: Your practice of a particular action or technique or system actually creates limitations (perhaps unconsciously) that allow you to flourish. To draw from a totally non-business example, you see it among martial artists, too: Their very controlled katas are just self-imposed limitations they use. Or in my daily workout regime: My workouts became better (more consistent, more effective, with better form… and even more fun) when I stopped trying to do ANYTHING and just picked one workout circuit that I do over and over.

What is it about limitations that make us better? I’m not exactly sure but I think it has to do with our brains: I think they’re agoraphobic. They need to know boundaries. Without boundaries, they become overwhelmed with choice. With boundaries, our brains narrow and focus and we can become more creative within the confines of those boundaries.

If you’re an email marketer, or someone who is wondering if a bit of limiting boundaries can help your business or life, check out this excellent article:

How email design limitations can actually be liberating

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