Posted by: Liz Massey | April 9, 2011

The Creative Person’s Guide to Focus, Part 6: When in Doubt, Improvise

Photo courtesy of SXC.

It may seem a little ironic, after publishing posts in this series that advocate the achievement of greater creative focus by developing plans to unplug, single-task, cultivate flow, and collaborate to suggest you can increase focus by eschewing plans and improvising. But engaging in spontaneous, unscripted action isn’t the path to chaos – far from it. In many cases, it is the sword that cuts through the Gordian Knot formed by an overload of choices, decisions or commitments.

I was reminded of this truth recently while reading the book “Improv Wisdom” by Stanford theater professor Patricia Madsen. In a chapter explaining one of the central tenets of improvisational theater, “Don’t Prepare,” she examined the relationship between preparation and attention:

“The habit of excessive planning impedes our ability to see what is actually in front of us. The mind that is occupied is missing the present.

“….To improvise, it is essential that we use the present moment efficiently … We need to know everything about this moment. Instead of preparing an outcome, ready yourself for whatever may come … Substitute attention for preparation. Then you will be working in real time.”

Perhaps you don’t believe you can improvise. Perhaps you practice an art form that emphasizes rehearsal and interpretation of the works of others. But everyone improvises, even if all they do is talk to other people. Unless you are a robot, or a member of a cult, most of our life is unscripted, unplanned and unruly!

Paul Sloane, writing on the BQF Innovation Blog, asserts that part of the misunderstanding about the nature of improvisation comes from TV shows that equate improv solely with comedy:

“It seems that improv is all about being funny. But it is not. Improv is about being spontaneous. It is about being imaginative. It is about taking the unexpected and then doing something unexpected with it. Very often this leads to humour and hilarious situations. But they are by-products. The key thing is being open to crazy ideas and building on them.”

How to Focus When You’re Making It All Up

Madsen and others are careful to note that preparation does have a place in improvisation – before the moment of creation. Here’s how she explained the concept to Brand Autopsy blog.

“I want the reader to know that his entire life has been the preparation for this moment. I want him to trust his mind and experience. I’m not really against any kind of preparation or analysis. It is simply that time and again I see people, business professionals in particular, who substitute preparation for action. They plan when they should be executing, or trying things out. Fear of failure invites inertia or at worst, paralysis.”

One of the keys to using improvised action to improve your creative focus is to learn the ground rules. Business creativity expert Michelle James lays out some of the basic operating principles of improv theater in a post on Innovation Tools from 2010, and several of them have a direct impact on focus …

  • Yes and. Fully accepting the reality that is presenting, and the adding a NEW piece of information – that is what allows it to be adaptive, move forward and stay generative. Each performer (agent) interacts with what is offered and offer a unique contribution.
  • Be changed by what is said and what happens. At each moment, new information in an invitation for you to have a new reaction, or for your character to experience a new aspect of them. Change inspires new ideas, and that naturally unfolds what’s next.
  • Co-create a shared “agenda.” This principle involves the recognition that even the best-laid plans are abandoned in the moment, and to serve the reality of what is right there in front of you  … It is not consensus, which reduces. It is co-creative, which expands.
  • Keep the energy going. No matter what is given, or what happens, you accept it and keep the energy gong. Unlike in everyday life, where people stop to analyze, criticize or negate, in improv you keep moving.

What you see on Michelle’s list is an awareness and an acceptance of the present moment and an emphasis on moving forward. What you don’t see, as mentioned above, is analysis, denial or a wish for things to be different – all of which pull us out of the “now.”

Practice Until It Feels Normal

My own history with improvisation is rather checkered. I fell in love with jazz in seventh grade and set out to learn the basics of musical improvisation in my teen years. I put in my time learning foundational principles, drilling myself on scales, modes, chord progressions and melodies – building a good “muscle memory” that I could draw upon when confronted with a jazz standard or an original piece.

What I didn’t emphasize enough was ear training – absorbing the audio results of all this preparation in real time. I listened to jazz all the time, which helped, but I didn’t focus on listening as an improviser. While I had quite a bit of fun in high school and college playing improvised solos in concerts or jamming with friends, I never really achieved the prowess in improvisation of which I felt I was capable.

Finally, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I studied jazz improvisation with a local trombonist. We jammed together, but more importantly, we examined the tunes we were playing inside and out. We clapped the melodies, sang them, etc. And gradually, I was able to do what I had always wanted to do – “hear” original melodies in my mind’s ear over a given set of chords, and play them! I had finally found the practice regimen that connected the theory I had in my head with the passion in my heart and the songs I heard in my ears.

James identifies a parallel situation in improv theater, noting that the application of the principles of improvisation in that genre requires much conscious effort to appear “spontaneous.”

She writes,

“The rules are simple – the application can be challenging, requiring conscious effort. One of the paradoxes of improv is that you practice being spontaneous until it comes naturally. By staying present to each moment, getting out of thinking and planning and into being, you have a wellspring options and choices in each moment that you otherwise would miss.”

It can be a tough shift in mindset, but greater focus, and often greater creative productivity, can be the outcome. As Madsen says in a recent New York Times article: “The future takes care of itself if we’re building constructively right now.”

Links related to improvisation and creative focus

The Improvised Life blog

A blog dedicated to celebrating all manner of improvised solutions or creations, curated by author and master improviser Sally Schneider.

Looking for answers in the moment

An interview with Sally Schneider that I published in my March 2011 e-newsletter, Creative Liberation. In addition to blogging at The Improvised Life, Sally is also the author of The Improvisational Cook.

What Jazz Soloists Know About Creative Collaboration | The 99 Percent

Scott McDowell discusses ways business team members can mimic jazz improvisers.

The Innovise Guys: Interview with Michelle James

Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore interview Michelle James about using improv principles in business consulting and her work with the Capitol Creativity Network.


Writer, blogger and online story strategist Amanda Hirsch has formed THINK IMPROV with her husband Jordan. The duo teaches creative professionals how to unleash their full potential using the principles of improvisation.


  1. […] meditation is based on a post related to improvisation that I published last year as part of my “Creative Person’s Guide to Focus” […]

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