Yesterday my wife and I stood in our unfinished condo deliberating paint colors. Closing day looms, and the developers require our color choices before they’ll finish their work. Our fondness for furniture aside, neither of us are interior designers or color mavens. So as we stood there in a white living room full of sawdust, we were stressing out big-time.

Fortunately one of our friends is an interior designer. We gave her a call and went back to the condo this evening. Within an hour, she took us from an intractable debate to a lovely solution. Given my line of work, I was as interested in her process as I was in the end result. How did she guide us to a beautiful color scheme when I, a supposed “designer,” couldn’t pick one color? What did she do differently?

The first thing she did is shed our preconceptions. “We can’t use a dark color in a small space” — not true. “We should have a different color in every room” — why’s that? “We don’t like [insert color]” — oh just give it a chance.

We had really boxed ourselves in with assumptions and myths, and I didn’t even realize it. She helped us forget these ideas and widen the space of possibilities. Next, instead of following abstract principles or assumptions, our designer looked closely at the colors that were already there. We looked at the colors of the cabinets, the dark wood floors, the surprising red touches in the light granite counters, and the green backsplash tiles. These were productive constraints, the kind you can juice. They reduced the possibility space in a way that was meaningful. Before long we had a palette of colors we loved, and a weight off our shoulders.

Creativity grows from constraints. But they need to be the right kind of constraints. The next time I think we “can’t” do something, I’ll try to remember my experience tonight and ask myself: Is this a meaningless preconception, or is it a productive fact I can work with? I know I’ll do better by focusing on the facts and leaving all other possibilities open.