Why do we procrastinate about the things we want in life? Are we afraid of making mistakes and looking like fools? That was me. I rationalized my way out of so many opportunities. I wasn’t ready for prime time. I had to do whatever “it” was perfectly or not at all—or so I thought.
Studying improv gave me the decision-making and other skills to help break through my inertia and turn procrastination into action. Can’t make up your mind?
A little improvisation can cure a lot of procrastination
After years of wanting to sign up for a class at an improvisation school in Chicago, in the summer of 1981 I made a commitment (thanks to a gentle push from playwright Jeffrey Sweet). Suddenly, I was in a little dark theatre on Lincoln Avenue with a bunch of strangers—playing theatre games I never heard of and missing my old friend: procrastination.
What was I doing in this strange land called improv?
Way #1: We are all a work in progress
I was lucky. I accidentally signed up for a workshop led by an instructor who would come to be revered by Chicago’s improvisation community: Martin de Maat. Martin was the ideal mentor for the procrastinator in me. He told me not to worry. “You can’t make a mistake here. We’re all works in progress—me included. You are safe. Take baby steps. Have fun. Be yourself.”
I settled in for the ride.
Way #2: Make something happen by turning questions into statements
Questions are the speed bumps of improv. One question can completely stop the forward motion of the action on stage. I learned that each question I asked was a cop out that placed the burden of decision-making on my fellow player’s shoulders, not mine. Questions were my way of procrastinating in an improv scene, just as I was doing in life.
The more I improvised the less questions I asked. I got to the point where I could change a passive question at the tip of my tongue into an active statement on the spot. With every statement I made, I was building my decision-making skills for life.
Way #3: Get practice making split-second decisions, constantly
Most people think that improvisation was originally designed to help people to think fast and be funny. Wrong. Improv games were designed to solve acting challenges. Coincidentally, these same exercises also help speed up the problem-solving hardware between our ears.
I needed less thinking in my life and more doing (just do it, just do it).
Improv forced me to make split-second decisions each second of every scene. Anything could happen in an improvised scene, and it usually did. Study the principles of improv in a safe learning environment, and you will be ready for anything—at work, at play, and in life.
Way #4: Improv can help you get out of your own way
I used to think that I lacked confidence. But the art of improvisation showed me that something else was holding me back: an inner critic that judged my ideas and questioned my value.
“Don’t be too silly or too serious,” the voice inside said. "Don’t make a move before thinking through every detail. Don’t take chances. Seek approval. And by the way, you’re not good enough.”
No wonder I was procrastinating. The critic inside was stomping on instincts and killing ideas. Experience with improvising gave me the guts to get out of my own way. It gave me permission to say YES to my everyday ideas, and professional goals.
Overwhelmed by options? Need to be more decisive? Improvise.
Yes, improvisation classes will throw you into the frying pan of decision-making. But don’t worry. You’ll learn skills that help you overcome paralysis by analysis. You’ll not only survive, but you can thrive under the guidance of a proven improv instructor (I’ve been teaching the art form since 1982). You’ll be ready to apply what you learn in a room full of beginning improvisers to your life outside of the classroom.
If you only make one decision in the next few days, end the stalemate and study improvisation, somewhere, anywhere. Don’t think about it. Just do it.
Author: Doug Voegtle
Education Director of Players Workshop Chicago