Productivity and improv: doing more of what you want to do more of

Productivity and improv: doing more of what you want to do more of

A couple of weeks ago, the Nursery and the Maydays had a productivity training day with Graham Allcott, author of the terrifying-titled How to be a Productivity Ninja. There were flow charts and master action lists, screwed up bits of paper, and a lot of discussion of how and when to say no. I had read Graham’s book before and was still using some of what he teaches, but even so, man was it fun to go deep into the material again, digging away at my habits, patterns and resistances, and observing where they are getting in our way, doing my best to be honest with myself. 

Graham is not what you expect from someone with a book title that way. He is softly spoken, warm and curious. He couldn’t be further from the foam-flecked drill sergeant gurning of someone like, say, Tony Robbins. I won’t try to summarise the book here, because I wouldn’t do it justice, but Graham starts from the principle that the aim of productivity is not getting more done, but getting the right things done, always knowing that what you are doing right now is the best thing you could be doing right now. That’s a beautiful idea, and, implemented, liberates all of the energy of worry to be better used in getting things done.

Because improvisers in particular and artists in general can be bad at being organised, and worse at being strict with ourselves. We are too busy to reflect on what we are busy with, and can drift along just doing things, flitting from project to project with the best of intentions and the highest joy, but very often just not getting things finished, saying yes to a project because it is happening, lacking a sense of why we are doing it and how it fits into a higher desire. Especially easy to do when you have spent your life teaching others to be open and responsive. How many improvisers have you heard say ‘I would love to, but i just don’t have the time’. How easy it is, I reflect, to wear our busyness as a badge of pride. I am busy (we say) because I have said yes to others and them to me. It’s one of the dangers of improv. 

It is essential, then, to remember that every yes to one thing is a no to something else. Time, attention and resources are always finite, and either we make choices about where to allocate them, or it happens by accident while we’re not looking. We get to, if we want, take the choice to be deliberate and careful in what we do.

Done right, being organised and productive can carve the space to speculate, noodle and tinker that the arts needs. Done wrong, it can choke in too many lists, formulas and schedules. Creativity needs space and time and in an information economy, you don’t find space and time, you make it. You get clear on your practical priorities and how you get there, then you leave that stuff alone while you noodle, daydream and just plain mess about. 

If the above sounds familiar, or even if you just feel like you have a lot on your plate, I urge you to read Graham’s book. It might be the biggest thing you ever do, both for your sanity and your artistic output.
Also, if you’d like to learn more about the workshop we had, visit Think Productive for information about their flagship attention management workshop.

Jules Munns
Jules Munns
jules@thenurserytheatre.com

Jules is the Artistic Director of the Nursery Theatre. Jules is the director of Impromptu Shakespeare and a cast member of Happily Never After, both of which are on at the Gilded Balloon during the Edinburgh Fringe 2019.

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