Using Mindfulness to Unlock Creativity by Mikael Austin
Welcome to the latest ImprovUX blog post!
Today’s post is in relation to and support of an article I saw posted on Medium titled:
By Mikael Austin – @mikael_austin
I’d like to start off by saying I didn’t start reading this article with the idea that I’d be connecting it to Improv. I liked the title and I like reading articles about creativity and that’s why I clicked on the link and dove in. However it didn’t take very long for me start seeing ideas and concepts that are very connected to improv. Also, the focus of the article is on bringing mindfulness into the workplace to help foster creativity. So in addition to the exercises and processes Mikael talks about I believe improv can also help create a more mindful environment in a fun and entertaining way for people.
Mikael uses the word “we” many times and he also has it written with emphasis (i.e. we). I got the feeling he did that because he wants to stress that we’re in this together and that it’s really important that we all work towards being more mindful. Improv is also very much a “we” thing. Improv teaches you to support your fellow improvisers by listening non-judgmentally so that you can build a richer, more creative, more interesting and more entertaining world TOGETHER.
The mindfulness/improv concepts in the article that jumped out to me were:
- “Being Present”
I’ll break the rest of this post in to groups based on the above concepts and I’ll try to show how improv helps support those concepts.
BEING PRESENT & NON-JUDGMENT
Along with the buzzwords the biggest thing in the article that made me have a “ZOINKS!!!” moment about this all being connected to improv was this quote:
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
I think this quote describes improv excellently. In improv you’re purposely paying hyper attention in the moment to what is going on in a scene and you’re (hopefully) doing that non-judgmentally. Why do you do this in improv? So that you can be aware of everything that is going on in a scene and let it help you create and add to it. From how your scene partner is standing, what and how they’re saying what they’re saying, and what physical things they’re creating in the location where the scene is taking place. All of these things, no matter how small they may seem, contribute to the world being created on stage. Nothing is insignificant. How a character stirs their coffee, how they sit down, how they somewhat annoyed say “thank you” to a person checking them out at a grocery store. All of those details tell you something about the character and what is going on with them and can be used to inspire more information to add to the world being created.
So how do you create mindfulness in Improv? Well, every improv class starts off with warm-up exercises. The warm-ups are there to help you get yourself calmed down mentally and physically. The warm-ups help you get out all of the clutter that’s floating around in your mind and get you present and connected to your fellow improvisers. The exercises help ground you in the present moment of being in class…o maybe before your meeting starts or before you start off your workday. Set up some time for people in the office to get together and go through some improv exercises to help them be mindful. Maybe after lunch to avoid the inevitable food coma from that Chipotle burrito bomb you had J.
The exercises could be as simple as basic mirroring. For mirroring everyone pairs off and they just slowly mirror each other’s movements. The goal is to exactly match each other’s movements and physicality as much as possible. First one improviser is designated as the leader and the other improviser follows them. Then the leadership position is switched and after that anyone can lead. By anyone I mean at any point someone can make a movement to take the lead in the mirroring exercise. It’s actually a lot of fun to get to that moment where the lead is passed seamlessly between the two improvisers. The change isn’t even intentional it just happens, all of a sudden you’re leading and then it’s passed over and you’re following.
Another warm up is called “21”. In “21” you circle up as a tight group, arms around each other’s shoulders. You can then take a moment to slowly breath in and out and get the group settled and focused. Then try to count out loud to 21 w/o anyone saying a number at the same time. It forces you to focus in to the present moment and listen to the flow of how the group members are saying the numbers. If two improvisers say, for example, “3” at the same time then you start back over at “1”. It can be frustrating but it can also be liberating to let go, get in sync and just let the moment of listening and paying attention take over. For the workplace I could see this exercise being modified to the group just setting 5 minutes aside for it and instead of trying to reach “21” the group just keeps doing it and seeing how high they can get in the 5 minute time period. That way there is no set final “goal” you just try to see how what number the group can get to.
Improv exercises can be a great tool at the start of meetings to get everyone there present and practicing non-judgment. Also, they’re fun! They can feel odd sometimes (especially the first few times you do them) but overall they can be fun and interesting and the fun aspect will help people overcome any fears they might have.
AGILITY, CHANGE & ADAPTABILITY
Having agility, being ok with change and being adaptable are also things improv excels at teaching. Because you never know really know what a scene or show is about or where it will take you, you have to be agile. It only takes one word or line to change everything you thought might have been going on in a scene. For example you thought you were about to ask your girlfriend to marry you and it turns out you’re actually being served your last meal before getting fired from your job. Improvisers are taught to deal with unexpected things like that and justify them because those facts are now a part of the scene and that world.
An easy game to play that deals with the unexpected (and having to justify it) is called “Slips” (at least that’s what I know it as). You take a bunch of slips of paper and write down one word, two word phrases or a simple sentence. Then two improvisers will take a few slips and start a scene. The improvisers at some point in the scene have to read what’s on a slip and then incorporate that into the scene and world and make it make sense. You have to be agile have adaptability and be willing to change when that slip is read.
To connect this to UX, don’t be so ready to dismiss something, especially during ideation, just because you don’t think it applies or makes sense. This is exactly what Mikael is talking about when he mentions “divergent thinking”. Be ready to embrace all the different ideas being brought to the conference room table. Support what is going on and you may just find yourself solving problems in ways you hadn’t thought of before.
CREATIVITY & INNOVATION
Being mindful in the present moment also allows for creativity to flourish in Improv because you’re slowing down and listening and processing EVERYTHING that is being said and done. Body language, environment, characters and what they’re saying, it all goes into the sub conscious and gets used…WHEN you’re present and being mindful. Mikael mentions, “They’re able to see beyond what has been done before” as a skill that mindfulness brings out. For me improv teaches you to see all that has been done before and to go beyond it by adding new information to the mix and also making new connections with the information. This can certainly help designers when they’re trying to think of new ways to solve a task that users are having a problem with.
An improv exercise that may help with this is “side support”. In Side Support you have two improvisers performing a scene while the other improvisers are standing off to the side. At any point during the scene the improvisers on the side can enter the scene to add new information to help clarify or add to the world that is being created. The improvisers on the side are trained to watch the scene as if they’re IN the scene. Then if they think of an interesting piece of information, they can act on it, and add it to the scene. For example if the scene has a father and son in it and the father is asking the son why his wallet is now missing his credit card. Maybe another improviser comes in playing a new game he just purchased for his smartphone (with the stolen CC). New information has been now added to show that it isn’t the son in the scene that took the credit card but the other sibling.
Another example of an exercise is “2nd Scenes”. In second scenes you have 2 improvisers perform a scene and when the improvisers on the side edit it they perform a new scene based in the world created by the first two improvisers. The 2nd scene could include one or both of the improvisers from the first scene or it could be all new improvisers. The 2nd scene could be at the library if the library was mentioned in the first scene. The basic premise is that some piece of information from the first scene inspires the 2nd scene but you should be able to tell that both scenes take place in the same world.. The improvisers on the side are looking for ways to create more from what is being presented to them in the first scene in interesting and innovative ways.
Coming back, finally, to UX, I wholeheartedly agree with Mikael that creating a culture with mindfulness can be hugely beneficial at your workplace. In addition to the ways Mikael mentions I truly believe that incorporating improv exercises into your workplace can help establish that mindfulness. Improv can also help with creating empathy, trust, and collaboration along with other skills that help employees be more creative and in the end innovative.
That’s all for now!