« Some thoughts on the book "The Instant Productivity Toolkit" | Main | Some hopefully humorous reflections after oral surgery »

Great time management ideas from the world of improv wisdom

I've just finished typing in my notes [1] from the delightful little book Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson. I've been taking my time reading this book (much more than I expected - I'm not sure why), but it's definitely worth reading. For me it took a little while to get into, but it ultimately excelled at my "Scribble Test" [2].

I'll be writing more about the book in the future, but in this post I want to highlight my take on Madson's contributions to time management ideas from the improv perspective.

On saying "yes": Madson encourages us to
Substitute "Yes and" for "Yes but." Add something to build the conversation.
From the GTD perspective, this reminds us of our power to make choices. Every day we're flooded with opportunities, which require us to decide: "Should I say yes?" Thankfully, with a system like GTD in place we're able to make those choices from a position of knowledge - since we (ideally) have 100% of our commitments listed, we have a good sense of whether the opportunity is one that we're willing to spend time on or not. If so, we can make mature choices about what we're willing to trade off or give up (if necessary) to take on this new commitment. If not, we can be clearer about saying no, ideally maintaining respect for those making the offer.

Without being conscious of our opportunities and choices, we run the risk of becoming "yes people," which, while possibly exciting (as Danny Wallace learned in Yes Man in which he says yes to everything), can really cause stress and anxiety. Fortunately, having a complete inventory and freed-up minds allows us to stay more open to opportunities of real value, including meeting new people [3].

On planning: We're told to
Give up planning. Drop the habit of thinking ahead.
To me this maxim supports the idea of doing minimal planning (a nice fit with David Allen's Natural Planning Model [4]). This helps because I sometimes spend too much time planning, which can get in the way of action (one of the book's themes). She also says:
Motivation is not a prerequisite for showing up.
We can see this as addressing procrastination with the idea that just getting started is a useful wedge. I've found that once I'm rolling, I can often keep going. I also found the corollary - all starting points are equally valid - very liberating. Put another way, which Next Action we choose may is probably not as important as choosing one!

On priorities: Madson also tells us to start the day with what's important, and to use rituals to get things going. These are great ideas; Julie Morgenstern takes the former to an extreme in her book Never Check E-Mail In the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work, and Thomas Limoncelli encourages us to develop routines for things that occur regularly in Time Management for System Administrators.

On perfectionism: The author spurs us to boldly lower our standards (!), a notion that I initially rebelled against, but which started making sense. Too often I worry about doing the best job in the world - really "nuking" a task - when I could get by with less. If this sounds like a cop out, don't sweat; what she's really telling us is to listen to ourselves. She notes that the idea of "thinking outside the box" really means seeing what is really obvious, but, up until then, unseen. In other words, trust yourself - the "easy" solution is most likely a great one!

On decision making:Madson's seventh maxim ("fact the facts") provides concrete advice for making troubling decisions.
The facts of any problem emerge when we look at the details. Writing them down allows you to be your own counselor. Be sure to include a realistic action plan, and then follow your own advice. Facing facts can be the first step in making important changes in your life. [5]
On focus: The chapter "stay on course" tells us to remember what our purpose is in acting. With the myriad distractions in modern life, maintaining focus is crucial (in fact it's a principle of Allen's book). The improviser says that "every improvisation has a point" and encourages us to ask often: "What is my purpose?" [6]

On making mistakes: The books tenth maxim - "make mistakes, please" - encourages us to move out of our comfort zone, where mistakes are possible (and likely). I really liked her admonition to proceed boldly, which I believe helps us be more productive. For example, instead of sitting on an email I'm about to send to someone I respect, admire, or just plain don't know, I'll just write it, briefly proof and spell-check it, take a breath, and SEND IT. I used to work the wording over and over, worry about what the recipient might think, and generally be anxious about reaching out in the world. This maxim says to just do it. And if there's a mistake? Take a bow and say Ta-dah!

On visualizing outcomes: David Allen is well known for his great advice to "visualize wild success." One thing I've wondered is what to do with the visualization once the outcome is complete. I felt that holding on to the image was unfair to both the outcome (I want to respect the reality) and the vision (I don't want to dilute future visualizations). Madson has a nice perspective on this:
We need to let go of outcomes. ... Things don't turn out as planned. You don't need to abandon your dreams; just don't let them get in the way of noticing what is taking place. Observe the currents of life, accept what is happening, including mistakes, and continue working to create the best outcome. The key here is a flexible mind.

On action: To me, this is a lot of what the book is about - acting, based on the moment. As Madson put it:
The essence of improvising is action.
Here are a few end-of-chapter bullets that should make a lot of sense to my readers who practice GTD:
  • Act in order to discover what comes next.
  • You don't need to feel like doing something to do it.
  • Schedule a difficult task and stick to your timetable.
  • Invite a buddy to join you in doing what you need to do.
  • Do the hard thing first.
On enjoying the ride: The author's final chapter really spoke to me. If I'm not careful, my serious analytical side overshadows my ability to be joyful and have fun in the moment. So having Madson encourage me to have fun ... well, thank you! She puts it this way:
Having fun loosens the mind. ... We need to be reminded of our capacity for delight and pleasure.

More on this delightful book in later posts, especially as it relates to career changes, and to designing and delivering presentations. Highly recommended!


Reader Comments (7)

I just wanted to pass along a wonderful comment from Patricia Ryan Madson, who was kind enough to read the article.

Dear Matt,
I am really thrilled with your post. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Just imagine . . . 33 useful ideas. Wow.

I love your notion of a "scribble test" and couldn't be happier that my little book allowed you to scribble away.

As you may know, publishers these days leave the promotion of books to their authors. I feel blessed that bloggers, like you, have gone to the trouble of passing on the word about the book. With a title like Improv Wisdom . . . some folks think the book is about comedy.

I am grateful to you for your thoughtful remarks. You are an excellent writer, you know. Have YOU written a book?

I'm glad that I reminded you to "enjoy the ride." Life is precious and each day counts.

Warm thanks,

July 21, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell


Great post ... thank you!

Quick question: how do you recommend creating a "realistic action plan"? As an architect, I have hundreds of tasks (NA's) and am often overwhelmed by them. Being able to consistently create a realistic action plan would be terrific ... any pointers?


Jeff H.

July 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hey Jeff. Thanks for the compliment, and for reading.

how do you recommend creating a "realistic action plan"? As an architect, I have hundreds of tasks (NA's) and am often overwhelmed by them.

First, I'd have a look at your NAs and verify they're all required. If some of them can be delegated or transferred to your Someday/Maybe folder, that would be good. Also, if multiple NAs are from the same project, you might consider simplifying down to one per project (putting the rest back into your project plan).

Regarding creating action plan, I'm assuming you've already figured out what needs to be moving ahead for each project, and that you've pulled out at least one NA for each project. If the actions are too large, then you may be put off by them. Another aspect of "realistic" is whether your actions are adequate enough to move your project ahead, given the time the project requires, and the time you have to work on them.

I hope that helps. Please feel free to email me if you want to talk directly, or to provide more detail. Also, the davidco [ GTD forum | http://davidco.com/forum/forumdisplay.php?f=5 ] has lots of good free advice.

July 22, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Thanks for another great article, Matt! I've added this title to my Someday/Maybe Books to Read list.

July 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRicky Spears

Thanks for reading, Ricky.

July 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I just discovered your blog via the lifehack community listible and you're the first one to criticise and compare in depth the different methods (GTD, Madson etc... )

"Palpable" remarks on perfectionism and making mistakes, I like it.

August 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hey, Anonymous. Thanks very much for your support, and for reading. I'm working through a bunch more books, with reports coming.

August 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.