Improvising in flow

Improvisation can be seen as the art of creating flow. It’s a way of connecting feelings, ideas and moments to create momentum.

I learned this idea that improv is about momentum from Kelly Leonard at Second City, and I find it really helpful in the classroom, on stage and in everyday life. Momentum is something we can choose to increase or decrease, accelerate or decelerate, and we have skills and tools for that.

Yes accelerates.
No decelerates.

It can take some effort to keep on connecting offers with ‘Yes, and’ but the payoff is exponential over time. You get to places that wouldn’t get to otherwise.

Full-on acceleration can be scary. There’s only so much we can take. And sometimes a story advances too quickly. So we can keep an eye on the old ‘improv-momentum-speedometer’ and slow down to smell the roses and explore where we are. We can slow things down by saying ‘No’, ‘Not yet’, ‘No, because’ while still agreeing to the reality and contributing our offers to it.

When I first started teaching improv with Justine De Mierre, we called our company The Unqualified Yes. I still love this idea and approach to improv (and Justine and I still play and perform together), but I find it helpful to widen the palette of options and know that we are playing with momentum and flow.

Improvising in flow

‘I know’ is a great tool for connecting people, feelings, ideas and moments together. (See our post on I know that goes into more detail.)

‘I know’ is not only something you can say, it’s also an attitude to improv (and life), and a permission to trust yourself that helps to create momentum and flow.

When you have a confident a sense of knowing it is transformative, even when you know you don;t know everything and there are ‘unknown unknowns‘. Starting from knowing helps you break out of self-doubt, so you can perform with a more centred, focused kind of attention know as a state of flow, or flow state.

Flow is a state of rapt attention where action and awareness merge. Time speeds up or slows down. You feel and perform your best. You are present in the moment without referring to a separate sense of self. In flow you are are totally involved in the here and now, trusting your impulses to navigate the challenge of each moment as it arises.

Now, you don’t have to climb the North face of the Eiger to get into flow. Flow is a spectrum, it’s not a binary yes/no state. Most people drop into a form of unselfconscious flow when chatting with friends or doing something they love. If you had to engineer something for humans to do to drop into flow, I think you’d come up with improv.

By way of a digression…Flow states release a cocktail or chemicals in the brain such as serotonin, dopamine, epinephrin, epinephrine and norepinephrine. It’s the ultimate natural high and if it was a street drug, it wouldn’t be legal in any country, anywhere.

So how do you improvise in flow? Well, it happens naturally and in a good class you’ll find that you can stretch your skills and take some risks without snapping back into self-consciousness and hesitation.

If you want more flow then it helps to know that flow states have identifiable triggers that can help you drop into flow. Steven Kotler at the Flow Research Group has done a lot to figure out which of the characteristics of flow that were identified in the pioneering work of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi are triggers that actually give rise to a state of flow (remember it’s a spectrum).

The four ‘flow triggers’ identified by Kotler are:

1. Complete concentration in the present moment

2. Immediate feedback

3. Clear goals

4. The challenge-skills balance (the challenge of the task at hand stretches our skills.)

The idea/tool of ‘I know’ feels like a component of each of these triggers. It helps us (1) listen and be present and (2) respond to what’s actually happening. By virtue of that we get to achieve our goals (3) for style, tone, impact and (4) knowing that we are learning as we go and valuing the learning (knowing that we don’t know everything) let’s us fail and course correct so we can stay in flow and maintain momentum.

Perhaps “I know” might be a pre-condition for flow. If you flip it round and we start with ‘I don’t know’ I think it would be impossible to break out of doubt and hesitation. Perhaps the pronoun ‘I’ gets in the way and the pre-condition is more like an unattached awareness of knowing/not-knowing (aka the heart of all spiritual practices.

Try it

If you want to get into flow when you improvise (treading the boards, trading in the boardroom, or trysting in the bedroom) try giving yourself the permission to say ‘I know’. Go on, trust yourself.

And when you stray into self-consciousness, hesitation and doubt (which will happen, of course) come back to the here & now with the intention and attitude of ‘I know.’

Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash

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