Build Better Habits With an Improvisational Mindset


Jane Porter

October 26, 2015

Breaking out of your daily routines can be a powerful way to unlock great new ideas, both personally and professionally. Jazz musicians and improv comedians are often masters at this idea of breaking from routine and taking a novel approach.

Take, for example, Miles Davis’s 1959 album, Kind of Blue, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. While most jazz players of his era were playing a fast-temped bebop, Davis wanted to take a new approach to jazz—getting both himself and his band to break out of the bebop routine. The result is one of the highest grossing jazz albums in history.

“Everything on this recording is a first take,” organizational behavior researcher Frank Barrett says of Davis’s album in an interview with Harvard Business Review. “Those musicians are exploring this for the first time. They could not rely on old routines and habits. They were noticing and creating and discovering all simultaneously.”

Noticing. Creating. Discovering. Barrett argues in his book Yes to the Mess that each of these skills is critical, not just in making great jazz, but in developing break-through ideas and being a strong leader.

Operating off-book is often easier said than done, though. In our world of synchronized calendars and countless scheduling tools, breaking from routine can seem like a kind of sacrilege. Indeed, maintaining a routine keeps us from getting sucked into a vortex of YouTube videos and social media that could easily throw our productivity out of whack. But, on the other end of the spectrum, couldn’t too much routine inhibit positive habit changes and stifle creativity?

Let’s look at some ways to avoid stagnation by shaking up your personal and work routines.

Give Up Control

Deviate from your routine, and it’s hard not to feel like you’ve lost control of the day. Yet when it is done with intention and self-awareness, breaking from regular routines can be a powerful way to stimulate new thinking, break bad habits, adapt better to change, and be more collaborative in a team environment.

“Great leaders are able to help people dislodge their routines so they pay attention,” says Barrett. “They show up with a receptivity [...] so they can respond in creative ways on the spot.”

By giving up control of how you always do things, you can create space for new ideas and a more receptive outlook.

Make More Mistakes

Embracing failure has become a zeitgeist of startup culture. If you aren’t taking risks, chances are you’re not doing anything exciting. As Miles Davis famously said, “If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake.”

That means reframing your thinking so that deviating from routine isn’t considered falling off the wagon so much as taking the wagon down a different path. “You need to be experimenting and exploring and trying new things all the time,” Barrett says. “If everything you play is clean and fresh and slick, that means you’ve given up experimentation.”

Barrett cautions that continuous success time after time could be seen as a red flag. “There’s a certain point at which, in the life of a group, or the life of a person, there’s not much more that can be learned by more success,” he says. “There’s a certain point at which your real learning and your real transformation, as a person or as a group, happens after an unexpected mistake.”

Seek Out the Unfamiliar

Our brains take shortcuts by gravitating toward what’s familiar. Most of the time, our routines are so ingrained that we don’t even think before acting. Nearly half of our daily behaviors typically happen in the same time and place, according to research from the University of Southern California’s department of psychology.

Researchers suggest that the best way to break from routine and seek out new ideas is to literally put yourself in unfamiliar places and situations. Such novel experiences help unleash your imagination by forcing the mind out of its tendency to rely on categories and take shortcuts, according to neuroscientist Gregory Berns. “Only when you consciously confront your brain’s reliance on categories will you be able to imagine outside of its boundaries,” he writes in his book Iconoclast.

Break Routines to Break Bad Habits

Even if we don’t plan for them, bad habits can be just as engrained in our routines as good ones. You might never exercise when you come home from the office because part of your daily routine involves opening the mail on the couch, which leads to putting your feet up, which leads to watching two hours of television instead of putting on your sneakers and going for a run.

This isn’t an endorsement to toss out your schedule altogether, but rather a call to notice if and how your regular behaviors might be reinforcing negative habits. Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit, “Unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”

Give Yourself a Fresh Start

According to research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, taking a fresh start can have a powerful psychological effect that leads to positive behavioral change. This “fresh start effect” suggests that creating shifts in your routine can lead to a sense of starting anew, which helps to reinforce positive habit changes.

For example, the researchers found that people who wanted to lose weight were more motivated to shift their habits and behaviors when they perceived to be making a fresh start—at the beginning of the year, season, month, or even week—according to Google search data that revealed an uptick in how often the word “diet” was searched and gym attendance typically increased.

Embrace an “Improvisational Mindset”

Improv comedians, like jazz musicians, are often masters at this idea of breaking from routine and taking a novel approach. They embrace the “yes, and…” rule, rolling with what comes at them rather than refuting it. The key here, of course, is a willingness to go out on a limb, make yourself feel uncomfortable, and fall flat on your face—what Barrett calls an improvisational mindset:

Although problem solving is necessary, it’s just not sufficient. If you’re just in a problem-solving mindset, your imagination is going to be shrunk. The interpretive possibilities of action will be smaller. You have to have a mindset that says yes to the possibility that something new and interesting and creative can emerge.

Certainly, routine has its benefits—it keeps us on task, eliminates distractions, and gives rhythm to a hectic life. But take time to drop your routine and embrace the unfamiliar by trying new things; the mistakes along the way may just lead to your best work yet.


This article was written by Jane Porter from Lifehacker and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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