Image adapted from camdiluv/flickr
The skills cultivated in improvisation — communication, creativity, teamwork, taking risks, and resilience — are ones you’d want to see on a résumé. Business schools are taking note and even teaching improv. Robert Kulhan, adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business explains, that at its core, “Improvisation isn’t about comedy, it’s about reacting — being focused and present in the moment at a very high level.”
One of the most fundamental principles of improv which produces that mindful reacting is “Yes, and”. You accept and agree with what someone has said, and you’re not done until you build upon it, which requires listening, understanding, and insight.
That “and” generates possibility, and as Tina Fey writes in Bossypants, responsibility. For her, “Yes, and” means, “[D]on’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.”
However, if you respond with negativity, by questioning the premise, by saying “Yes, but”, you abandon your partner and shut down the scene by refusing to engage. What’s worse is that this conduct signifies that those initiations and ideas are not worthwhile and cultivates fear of contribution.
We often buy into the impression that work is about being right, hypercritical, and steely, as if our ideal work persona were Simon Cowell. But that kind of behavior leaves people out to dry. Often when it comes time to act, move, brainstorm, and make decisions — when it’s showtime! — it does no good to sit around the table with our arms and attitudes crossed. James Mitchell, founder of Improboost, who runs workshops in D.C. to boost teamwork and performance through improv techniques, sees this happen all too often in the workplace.
He recounts, “Many of my students work in competitive office environments, and have learned to say ‘Yes, but.’ You see this in office meetings all the time. One person comes up with a proposal, and a co-worker will immediately come up with a host of reasons why it won’t work. When ‘Yes, And’ is violated on stage, the scene goes downhill; when it’s violated at work, it leads to stifled thinking and a poor work product. People are reluctant to offer creative ideas for fear that their scene partner — or co-worker or boss — will shut them down.”
Those employees who feel stifled, shut down, or even belittled, for sharing their ideas, become unproductive, disengaged, and resentful, and those feelings are unhealthy in the workplace. Why? Our emotions affect cognitive functions like memory, attention, and reasoning. Negative emotions actually narrow our view, interfere with rational decision-making, and inhibit taking risks.
On the bright side, positive emotions broaden thinking and action and increase creativity levels. According to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, such expansion and growth helps build up personal skills and resources. When “Yes, and” becomes part of a work culture of openness, where ideas are encouraged, heeded, and developed, both the individual and the organization broaden, build, and enrich themselves.
So put an end to your Simon Cowell ‘tude. Suspend your judgment when you don’t want close off conversation and possibility. “Yes, and” requires openness. Go with the flow and add to the momentum.
As Mitchell notes, “In a safe space for brainstorming, people build upon one another’s ideas and add their own unique flavor to the mix; it’s amazing to witness it in action.”
Illustration: Dimitra Tzanos
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
You’ll be surprised how far that can take you!
All too often, to-do lists end up with more things to do and less things getting done. Humans are awful at completing lists. We often convince ourselves that we can complete our to-do list if we just buckle down and try harder.
Yet tomorrow, or next week, or next month rolls around, and the list is just as bad as it has always been. Probably worse, if you are like me.
So when we found iDoneThis at Zapier it immediately clicked.
- No more over bearing to-do list? Check.
- Transparency into what everyone on the team is doing? Check.
- Email based? Check.
- Built-in motivation to do meaningful things each day? Check, again.
I loved it.
We’re always up to date. We don’t have to constantly bother each other about what’s going on. And for a remote team, it’s an easy way to keep tabs when doing a group hangout just isn’t feasible.
But before this turns into a complete love fest, we quickly discovered two bottlenecks with our new iDoneThis routine:
1. There’s still one more thing to do.
Everyone on the team has one more to-do on their list: recording their daily dones at the end of the day.
2. Not everyone is email based.
I’m one of the few people on the team that spends a significant amount of time in my inbox.
For engineers who are operating out of GitHub all day long, checking an inbox at the end of the day is not exactly high on their priority list and recording dones as they go breaks their workflow. It’s not that engineers don’t want to update everyone on what they’re working on — it’s just not their habit.
So how exactly can we solve this problem?
The Psychology of Automation
Humans naturally follow the path of least resistance.
In one National Bureau of Economic Research study, researchers set out to figure out how to increase 401(k) savings. The study found that by simply adding automatic enrollment for new employees, plan participation doubled.
What does this have to do with completing our daily iDoneThis updates?
Since humans do what takes the least effort, the easiest way to record our dones would be to not have to do anything at all. If there was a way to automatically notify iDoneThis each time something meaningful is completed, we’d have a way to get rid of that last to-do item, and it wouldn’t matter that iDoneThis is mostly email based.
If automating iDoneThis is anything like automating 401k enrollment, then we wagered that the number of times we “simply forgot” to record our dones would go down significantly.
With this hypothesis in mind, we turned to the Zapier user base which is filled with automation experts. And sure enough, several Zaps had already been shared to help people automate their daily iDoneThis entries.
- Send GitHub commits to iDoneThis via Gmail
- Won Base CRM deals to iDoneThis form email
- Trigger Beanstalk changes to iDoneThis through Gmail
This type of automation solved the exact problem we were having with non-email based teammates getting into the habit of using iDoneThis and getting hooked. All it took was a couple Zaps.
Once everyone on the team could see everything happening around them, we realized the full benefit of iDoneThis. It was easier to jump in and help on a project that someone might have been struggling with for a few days. You can encourage teammates for awesome days. Or you can help build them up, if there are a few rough days in a row.
How to Automate Your Daily iDoneThis
The trick to automating your daily iDoneThis practice is to find a way to launch an email to iDoneThis when you complete certain tasks.
Many web services can trigger emails for certain activity within their app. Simply set that process to update your iDoneThis account by using the address “firstname.lastname@example.org”, and for personal users, “email@example.com”. (Find the exact address in the “from” field of your reminder emails, and make sure the service or app is using the same email address as the one that’s affiliated with your iDoneThis account.)
If a service doesn’t have email alerts for a specific activity, try using the Zapier Gmail send email action to send an email to iDoneThis from the many Zapier triggers that are already available.
Unleash the power of automation to spend more time on the things that matter and help you get more stuff done! And don’t forget to share your automation tricks and Zaps with us in the comments.
- Send GitHub commits to iDoneThis via Gmail
People who often say they’re “too busy” or “crazy busy” sound like buzzing busy signals. And when you start sounding like an appliance, it makes it hard to connect with you. My reaction to your busy signal is much like that of Mindy Kaling, who sees stress as non-conversation:
No one ever wants to hear how stressed out anyone else is, because most of the time everyone is stressed out. Going on and on in detail about how stressed out I am isn’t conversation. It’ll never lead anywhere. No one is going to say, “Wow, Mindy, you really have it especially bad. I have heard some stories of stress, but this just takes the cake.”
Likewise, going on about how busy you are isn’t conversation and doesn’t lead anywhere — except making your conversation partner bored, or worse, peeved. People who act super busy send the same message, making time spent with them never feel quite whole. Interestingly, I find that most people who are legitimately occupied — with their work, or family, or art, or what-have-you — rarely play the “too busy” card, or go out of their way to make time for meaningful connection exactly because they’ve been busy.
The Meaning Behind Busy
When you go on to other people, or to yourself, about being so busy, you’re often engaging in doublespeak. Let’s dig a little deeper to translate what you actually mean when you get in the habit of saying or acting like you’re too busy:
- I matter. Being busy means I’m needed and significant in this great big universe. Though going around literally telling people, “I matter!” and expecting some sort of substantive conversation to result would be really weird, I’ll just say “I’m busy!” instead.
- I am super-important. Doling out complaints and explanations about being too busy is the express line to a mini-ego trip. It’s going beyond “I matter” to “I matter … more than you” despite the fact that nobody ever wants to hear this.
- I’m giving you an easy excuse. This is one of the easiest outs for stuff I don’t want to do. Alternatively, I’ve spent a lot of time being distracted or stuck, but this excuse allows me to feel okay with it.
- I’m afraid. I keep relentlessly busy because I suffer from FOMO, or fear of missing out. I’m scared that I don’t matter, that I’m not important, that I’m not needed, so I’m going to spend my time on distracting stuff that doesn’t really matter, that’s not all that important, where I’m not actually needed.
- I feel guilty. There’s fulfilling, meaningful stuff that I actually do want to do but I can rationalize it away instead of confronting challenges or changing direction. Alternatively, I think being busy is such a valuable quality that I’ll overbook myself to the point where I feel guilty for not getting to everything or for spending time on anything that doesn’t fit into a limited definition of “productive”.
The worship of busy-ness as such a virtue is where the trouble begins, providing the foundation to its indiscriminate use as a front or an excuse. It’s easy, even enticing, to neglect the importance of filling our time with meaning, thinking instead that we’ll be content with merely filling our time. We self-impose these measures of self-worth by looking at quantity instead of quality of activity.
How to Escape the Cult of Busy
In the children’s book (that every adult should read), The Phantom Tollbooth, the protagonist Milo comes across the frightening, faceless Terrible Trivium, a “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.” Milo and his friends fall under his spell, agreeing to perform busy-work like moving a huge pile of sand from one place to another, grain by grain, using a tweezer. The Terrible Trivium’s explanation for this terrible fate?
If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing….
What a scary thought!
So if you find yourself feeling frazzled, habitually explaining away things with a busy status, it’s probably time to slow down and pay attention to the important, difficult stuff. Examine what is keeping you so busy compared to what you really should and want to be doing.
Here are a couple ways to start:
Track yo’ self.
In the quest to better connect your attention and action, do an attention audit. Track your time using a tool like Harvest or a time log spreadsheet. Break down how you spend time on the computer with RescueTime. Or see how you answer the questions of “What did you get done today?” and “What did you pay attention to today?” over time using iDoneThis.
Change your language:
We like this tip from Laura Vanderkam. Instead of putting things in terms of time and activity, frame them in terms of priority:
Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: “I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.” If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.
Another thing you can do is once you have a clearer handle of your priorities and how you want to spend your energy, change your definition of “productivity” to encompass those things.
Brené Brown explains how people stay busy out of habit and fear. She recommends letting go of “exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth” and allowing us to explore what matters:
[W]hen we make the transition from crazy-busy to rest, we have to find out what comforts us, what really refuels us, and do that. We deserve to not just put work away and be in service of someone else. What’s really meaningful for us? What do we want to be doing?
Do less and feel more joy.
The opposite of the fear of missing out, as Anil Dash so beautifully wrote, is the joy of missing out. Pay attention to what’s in front of you, and you’ll gain control and find joy.
Being the one in control of what moves me, what I feel obligated by, and what attachments I have to fleeting experiences is not an authority that I’m willing to concede to the arbitrary whims of an app on my mobile phone.
Have you fallen under the spell of the cult of busy? Tell us what you think in the comments!
Have you chased away the paper tigers of your fears? Take it a step at a time. The process is its own reward.
(This is the last part of the 3-part “Manager’s Series” by our friend, time coach, and productivity expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders.)
When you’ve tried so hard to address team members’ emotional hurdles to accepting change and walked them through how to apply the change to their work situation, your blood can start boiling when you still don’t see the desired results. “How could they be do disrespectful?” you seethe. “Do they even notice? Do they even care?”
Photo: Anna Yanev Photography
Before you stomp over to people to tell them exactly how you feel about their impertinence, step back and take a deep breath … and one more.
As a time coach and trainer and the author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment, my specialty is in working with people who really struggle with getting in control of their time and their routines. I can assure you that unless they’re natural rebels, people generally want to do what you’ve asked but they just haven’t mastered it yet.
While some people need only one telling to master a task or respond to a request, others need multiple. This can make you crazy if you let it, as you’ll need to keep at it for awhile. You can’t control others’ speed of integration of change, but you can control your emotional response to situations and your method of communication.
My book leads you through different types of accountability and discusses how to reduce time-caused drama—including tips for recovery. To help you with your resilience and patience in the midst of implementing team-wide change (or lack thereof) — using the example of getting reluctant team-members to use a new work tool like iDoneThis — here are five steps you can apply:
Step 1: Recognize and Validate Your Feelings.
Before you can work through something effectively with someone else, figure out what’s going on inside of yourself. People tap into their emotions in different ways. Some sort out their thoughts best when they exercise. Other individuals talk to a trusted adviser or need to write out their thoughts to discover what is happening. Regardless of exactly what you do, move from your current physical position in some way. Switching your bodies’ state can dramatically shift your mental state.
Once you find yourself in a different place, or at least a different posture, figure out the answer to these questions. You may discover them in this order or in a different one. The order doesn’t matter, but the discovery of all four does:
- What was my interpretation of what just happened? For example: Do I think this person is deliberately ignoring me or that he just forgot?
- What emotions did that trigger? For example: Anger, frustration, guilt, resignation.
- Who am I blaming? For example: Am I blaming myself for not doing a better job of explaining the change or for not being more firm? Am I blaming the other person for not following through?
- What would be the most constructive next step? For example: Talk through the change at our next group meeting, bring it up in a one-on-one, let this slide and see what happens next time.
Step 2: Suspend Judgment.
You have a right to feel how you feel, but you don’t have a right to judge, especially before you understand the total picture. Start by validating your emotions because denying them will keep you from coming up with real solutions and cause them to pop up at inopportune times. But the second step of a mature leader involves disengaging from your emotions enough to handle the situation in an effective fashion.
Instead of stomping over to someone’s desk for a dressing-down, or mulling how to deliver the perfect managerial monologue, put the wheels in motion for the most constructive next step. Fanning the flames of self-justification may feel good in the short-term but doesn’t benefit your team in the long term.
Start with the assumption that there must be a good reason that a team member didn’t follow through on the change, and then focus your energies on figuring out the best ways to uncover those reasons.
Step 3: Ask Questions.
Before you start doling out punishments or even suggesting solutions, stop and listen to the other person explain the situation. You could ask a question like: “I noticed you haven’t been replying to your iDoneThis e-mails. Could you explain to me what happened?”
What you hear may surprise you and also calm you. For example, you may discover that long hours kept a team member busy at work until 10 p.m. so that the 6 p.m. reminder e-mail was no longer visible with a quick inbox scan. Or you may find that the reminder was being sent to a spam folder. Or you may uncover that more than a reminder e-mail is necessary to prompt action.
Employing the principle from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that you should seek first to understand and then be understood, you can now explain your side. It’s important that you state facts as facts, and interpretation as your perception. For example:
“When you didn’t reply to iDoneThis this week after I made a specific request last Friday at our staff meeting that it be updated, it made me think you weren’t respecting what I said. Now that I understand your side of the situation, let’s look at solutions.”
Photo: Thompson Rivers
Step 4: Work Together on a Solution.
Instead of focusing on the problem, focus on solutions. A collaborative approach to problem-solving can benefit both sides because the person having the difficulty may not have the ability to recognize what’s causing the problem. Also, you may not know the right solution until you talk through the options. What works well for one person may not work at all for another.
The best way to navigate this discussion is to go through the list of issues and then brainstorm solutions together. For example:
- Manager: It seems that you sometimes forget to check your e-mail at the end of the day. Then you don’t see the iDoneThis reminder, correct?
- Team Member: Yes, that’s correct.
- Manager: Could you put a pop-up reminder in your calendar or stick a note beside your door that says, “Did you remember iDoneThis?”
- Team Member: I really don’t like pop-ups, and I’m not much of a paper person, but I think it could work well to have an alarm go off on my phone as a reminder.
- Manager: That sounds reasonable. You know what? You can use the iDoneThis app to get a reminder and reply on your phone. Let’s plan on you setting one of those options up today.
Step 5: Define Follow-Up.
Once you’ve talked through a solution, define in writing how and when you will follow up and the acceptable minimum of results. Also, agree on consequences for lack of follow-through based on the negative impact it makes on the team.
“Everyone loses out when you don’t update us on your work. I’ll expect that you’ll update iDoneThis at least four times this week, and I’ll check in with you during our weekly one-on-one session. I’ve been using these reports as the basis for our team meetings. It’ll be embarrassing and a waste of time to have you stand up in front of everyone to update us on what you’ve been working on.”
Keep your word to follow up, congratulate progress, refine solutions, and uphold consequences until you’ve achieved consistency. In the process, stay calm.
It takes time for people to change. You can’t control others but you can dictate your emotional response to a situation.