Composing and improvising

When organising your behaviour to achieve a goal, there are two equal and opposite skills: composing and improvising.

Composing means making decisions as early as possible. You anticipate the outcome you want, figure out the paths to that outcome, and construct a plan for getting there. You're making decisions at the point of maximum influence: with more time, your decisions can compound for longer, and you have a lot more freedom to choose what to do and when to do it.

Composing requires bringing the future into the present, making decisions there, and then projecting those decisions back out into the future. Both those transformations create uncertainty and risk, and in that sense composing is quite fragile. You start with a mix of incomplete information and conjecture, turn that into a bunch of assumptions, and turn those assumptions into behaviour.

But as difficult as predicting the future is, the real difficulty is enacting it. Every plan is a constraint on your future behaviour: a commitment to do one thing instead of another at a point in time. But when the plan meets reality – or, rather, doesn't meet it, those constraints can become stifling. Obviously, a decision based on incorrect assumptions should be changed, but any replacement decision is being made with less time, less influence, and less freedom. And what if that new decision conflicts with other, more careful decisions you've already made?

Improvising, on the other hand, means making decisions as late as possible. You might still anticipate a general space of outcomes, but not necessarily a specific one. Instead of preparing by deciding in advance, you prepare by putting yourself in the best position to make decisions as they arise. These decisions are made at the point of maximum information: everything is done but the decision itself.

The key to improvising is flexibility. To make a good decision in the moment, you have to keep a range of options open, and be able to choose quickly and freely. You don't need to anticipate the future, you just wait until it's close enough to the present that the right decision is evident. In that sense, improvising is quite robust – to almost everything except planning.

Composing and improvising are, if not exactly opposites, at least mutually incompatible. Composing relies on future behaviour being determined by present decisions, and improvising relies on present behaviour being determined by present circumstances. To do one better, you have to do the other one worse.

There are situations where composing doesn't work, like anything rapidly-changing or unpredictable, and situations where improvising doesn't work, like anything that requires directed action on a timescale longer than a few hours. And it is possible to use one to fill the gaps of the other, but not really possible to use both at the same time.

This means that to practice composing when you're used to improvising, or practice improvising when you're used to composing, you need to give up the skill that works best for you at exactly the time you'd tend to use it. You have to get worse before you get better, because the skill you already know actively sabotages the skill you're trying to learn.