Improvisation As Habit And Productivity Enabler

We’re taping a podcast this Friday with Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habitand his newest book Smarter Faster Better. After our recent talk with Gretchen Rubin, I’m really looking forward to digging into the vital role that habits play in both our personal growth as well as our ability to be successful at work.

On the home front, Duhigg points out that, “Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control and more confidence.”

I grew up in a family of six boys and our parents were emphatic about eating dinners together. So much so, that it didn’t register as normal not to do so. Conversely, it was apparent to me early that the kids who were struggling in school and life, we’re most often disconnected from their immediate family. They were at odds with their parents and they lacked routine.

It’s not that sharing food with your family contains some sort of magic. It’s a model that you draw from. It’s a root connection.

This extends to the workplace as well. Successful companies create a culture that employees both understand and want to emulate. When Second City is operating at its best, it is following the rules of improvisation: it listens for intent, it’s got your back and it places a value on speaking truth to power. Those things aren’t easy and it is simply unreasonable to think that any company could maintain a perfect culture 100% of the time. Which is another reality that improvisation speaks to: mistakes will be made – a lot of them – and a mastery of improvisation will provide you with the agility and resilience to not only bounce back from a mistake – but also to use mistakes as a knowledge enhancement.

Duhigg also notes that, “We all have a natural proclivity to be optimistic, to ignore our mistakes and forget others’ tiny errors. But making good predictions relies on realistic assumptions, and those are based on our experiences. If we pay attention only to good news, we’re handicapping ourselves.”

This is hugely important. The science is clear on this: we downplay our negatives and overplay our positives. Everyone does it. People do it and businesses do it. And while it’s understandable when you are looking through the lens of psychological safety, there is a way to keep your employees psychologically safe while also freeing them to deal with what’s not working.

The better way is removing fear and shame from the failure equation.

Once fear and shame are out of the picture, we can not only look at our mistakes honestly and openly, we can do the improv-thing and use those mistakes within our own personal and professional narrative.

We need to make a habit of failing fast, failing in context and failing with purpose. When we do this on a regular basis – when the habit is ingrained – our natural optimism is no longer at odds with the reality. We are operating on all cylinders and we are putting ourselves in a position to not just be more successful, but to be more happy as well.


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