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Play Your Way Sane

120 Improv-Inspired Exercises to Help You Calm Down, Stop Spiraling, and Embrace Uncertainty

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Stop negative thoughts, assuage anxiety, and live in the moment with these fun, easy games from improv expert Clay Drinko.

If you’ve been feeling lost lately, you’re not alone! Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans were experiencing record levels of loneliness and anxiety. And in our current political turmoil, it’s safe to say that people are looking for new tools to help them feel more present, positive, and in sync with the world. So what better way to get there than play?

In Play Your Way Sane, Dr. Clay Drinko offers 120 low-key, accessible activities that draw on the popular principles of improv comedy to help you tackle your everyday stress and reconnect with the people around you. Divided into twelve fun sections, including “Killing Debbie Downer” and “Thou Shalt Not Be Judgy,” the games emphasize openness, reciprocation, and active listening as the keys to a mindful and satisfying life. Whether you’re looking to improve your personal relationships, find new meaning at work, or just survive our trying times, Play Your Way Sane offers serious self-help with a side of Second City sass.

Lesson 1: Setting the Stage LESSON 1 Setting the Stage
Improv classes and rehearsals often start with a seemingly unremarkable exercise. One grown person tells other grown people to walk around the room. That’s pretty much it. Everyone is supposed to walk around and really notice the walls and mirrors and temperature and lighting fixtures. I think it’s an amazingly important place to start, really noticing where the heck we are and what’s going on around us.

The point is that we don’t usually notice our surroundings. We turn streets into war zones and cubicles into prison cells. Noticing where you really are and what surrounds you at any given moment helps you press the reset button. Noticing that a car is a fiberglass go-machine painted cobalt or that your cubicle is actually three short walls with a worn spot in the carpet just below your feet places you back in the real world. No one wants to walk through a war zone only to arrive safely at their prison. We need tricks to press that reset button and see the world as it really is, and that starts with turning our attention outward.

The following are games that help you press that reset button. I, for instance, tend to either walk around in a habitual haze or get stuck in my head and overreact to imagined dangers. These games are designed to help me, and you (I’m a giver, friends), to start noticing the world, snap out of that haze, and start seeing things as they really are. So let’s start walking around our metaphorical rehearsal space and really seeing where we are.

Let’s set the stage.
GAME 1: TAKE A HIKE
If I only had to walk around empty rehearsal spaces my whole life, instead of crowded streets and sometimes-hostile offices, I wouldn’t be so stressed out. I’d also be penniless, and a recluse, and plausibly in need of a volleyball to talk to and keep me company. Life is not a rehearsal… space, but we can borrow a rehearsal exercise and apply it to the places where we do our real-world walking.

This game is deceptively simple. All I ask you to do is walk around your space. That’s it. Just walk.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “I already walk around. This guy’s a clown. I want a refund!” To you, sirs and madams, I say take a hike. That’s right. Hear me out. Instead of just walking around with metaphorical blinders on all day, I want you to walk around with a completely different mindset. I want you to take a hike and pay attention to everything around you. I want you to start being present.

Next time you walk to the train or your car or to the store, I want you to pretend you’re on a hike. Instead of noticing trees and wildlife, you’re going to notice, and I mean really notice, your neighbor, their house, the crack in the sidewalk, the way the breeze blows the weeds in your garden.

That weed example reminds me of something very important about this exercise. You must remain detached. This one is so hard for me. When I see a weed blowing around in my yard, I instantly think about how I need to kill it or how many more weeds must be lurking close to the surface or how this one weed is surely lowering my property value. This means I won’t be able to sell it when the market takes a dip, and that means I lose everything and will be stuck here eating tuna out of a can for all eternity. In case you can’t tell, this is the antithesis of what Take a Hike is all about.

Every time you notice something, you’re only allowed to notice more details about it—or you can move on and notice other things. Be detached and impartial. You are a park ranger or a scientographist. Call yourself whatever you like, but I want you to remain observant. Really see and experience the world around you, and stop yourself every time you start spinning your wheels. Started thinking about how that weed will cause you to have to sell your pet dog or move to the desert? That means you’re doing it wrong. Just acknowledge that you’re spinning, don’t beat yourself up, and move on to some other observation.

See? It sounds easy on paper—just walk around. But this can be deceptively difficult when we have become so bored with, familiar with, and judgmental about every little thing in our everyday world. So put on your ranger shoes, walk out your door, and notice what’s really out there. No judgment. No future-thinking or spinning. Just take a hike and really see what’s out there. You might be surprised.
GAME 2: TAKE THE LONG-CUT HOME
I find this next game really difficult to start, but as soon as I do it, I feel fantastic. The game is simple: just take a detour while on your way somewhere. Leave early for work, so you can turn left instead of right on Sixth Avenue. On your way home, walk around the lane instead of straight up your driveway. On your way from your car to the mall, walk around Parking Section D instead of going directly into Sears. (Sears is still a thing, right?)

Like I said, this can be really difficult because our brains want us to get the job done immediately. In today’s fast-paced world, we tend to have a hard time slowing down, meandering, smelling the roses. This game forces you to stop in your tracks and shift from a future-thinking, goal-oriented mindset to a more immediate state of mind. When you go on a detour, you aren’t on your way anywhere. You are pausing your forward momentum, preventing yourself from getting from A to B as quickly and mindlessly as you usually do.

One more word about detours: when you find yourself in the midst of an actual detour, not just Game 2 from this book, I want you to try to handle it with the same aplomb as you do with your on-purpose detours. I want you to enjoy that brief moment in time when you’re no longer propelling yourself to the next thing and the next and the next. As you slow down, start to notice how pained, stressed, and generally crazy people around you look when unexpected roadblocks ruin their days. This reinforces the value in slowing down. I don’t want to be that guy who yells at the train or hits his fist into his car. So next time a train stops you dead in your tracks, enjoy it. Take advantage. You’ve just been forced to slow down.
GAME 3: CALL IT LIKE YOU SEES IT
My favorite way to start a workshop is to have students walk around the space. I tell them to walk with a purpose, but not get caught in a pattern. (For some reason, people tend to just follow each other unless told not to.) Then I tell them to start pointing to objects that they notice and naming them, “Chair! Table! Hat! Tree! Window! Light!” That’s the first part of this exercise, and its whole job is to get students out of their heads and into the room.

We miss so much of the world as it passes us by. One way to get out of your head and into the reality of your physical space is to point to things and call them what they are.

As you walk or drive to work or while you’re running an errand, I want you to point to things you pass and simply name them, “Sidewalk! Car! Curb! Store! Tree!” I want you to focus only on nonhuman objects for now. Just walk, point, and name. Don’t judge either. Avoid adjectives. Instead of “Cracked sidewalk” and “Stinky flower,” I want you to stick with only the facts, “Sidewalk” and “Flower.” That’s all. The reason I want you to hold off on pointing and naming people is that we’re just not there yet. I don’t want you to get stuck in the bad habit of being judgmental. We’ll address this later. I also want to spare you the awkwardness and rudeness of pointing at people and mumbling at them. Do that on your own time.

Now, I do see how pointing and naming could be problematic. People might stare at you and worry about your mental health. You might just feel uncomfortable, which is not my goal here at all. So if physically pointing and naming is too uncomfortable, or you find yourself drawing unwanted attention, you can certainly modify the game and do it only in your head. But if at all possible, throw caution to the wind. Stop caring what people think. Call it like you sees it, and then sees what happens.
GAME 4: CALL IT LIKE YOU DON’T
Now that you’re such an expert at calling it like you sees it, the next step is to get even sillier and call it like you don’t. One of my favorite things about improv is the creativity, the nonliteral thinking, the brainstorming aspect. This game should help your brain shake off constrictive and literal thinking and start getting more creative.

The acting exercise that begins with walking around and naming real objects can continue with walking around and calling those same objects very wrong names. For example, I could point to a table and call it a tree or call the window a shoe. We spend so much of our time thinking so literally, so black or white, so right or wrong. I want you to see what it feels like to call things the wrong name.

Start the same way you did with Call It Like You Sees It. Only this time, I want you to point to things you pass and call them the wrong name. Point to a fire hydrant and call it a duck. Point to a crack in the sidewalk and call it a trampoline. But to be clear, the point is not to be creative. I don’t want you pausing to think of clever or funny wrong names for things. The point is to just say the first thing that pops in your head. It can be as unfunny as can be. Just keep right on walking and naming, one object after another and another.

Then reflect on what it felt like. I tend to smile and relax a little when I start calling things wrong names. It feels silly and playful to me, maybe a little rebellious. Most of us have to think literally and play by the rules most of the time, so let this game be a little escape, a chance to go against the grain.
GAME 5: NOPE, TRY SOMETHING ELSE
I feel I’ve made it pretty clear by now that my mind doesn’t always cooperate. Sometimes I think, “You’re a dumb-dumb face” when I should be thinking “My my, what a thoroughly compelling and profound statement he just made.” Sometimes my mental word stew prevents me from seeing, hearing, and really experiencing the world around me. Other times, it poisons that world completely. I hear my boss say that I’m lazy, when what she really said was that I did 99 percent of my job well. I see an impossible quagmire when there’s a completely simple solution. This mainly happens when I try to use computers… after 9 p.m. We all have our weaknesses.

So what can we do? How can we try something else? Luckily, our thoughts are fleeting and fairly mutable. They can change. We just have to retrain ourselves to try something else, something better.

The next time you catch yourself judging others, being critical or negative, complaining or fretting, or just generally thinking crappy thoughts, I want you to catch yourself red-handed. Then say, “Nope, try something else.” Instead of saying, “This bar is so loud. I hate that noisy table,” replace that thought with the next thing that comes to mind. “I like guacamole.” Not all thoughts have to be profound. The world would be pretty boring if we only thought about Nietzsche and hermeneutic circles. And besides, sometimes the guacamole is just too good to not think about.

If your next thought is still no good, try another one. And another and another. Keep telling yourself, “Nope, try something else,” until you land on a thought worth keeping. Recognizing when our thoughts are not what we want in that moment is half the battle. The rest of the fight is about resetting our habitual thinking.

I think you’ll find out fairly quickly that with some practice, you can think hundreds of thoughts in rapid succession. Once you start to see the many possibilities, I think you’ll start landing on fewer crappy thoughts. And that’s a big step toward living a calmer, more content, less crappy existence.
GAME 6: A MUSEUM IS JUST A STORE WHERE YOU CAN’T BUY ALL THE THINGS
I don’t like to go to museums. I know, I know—I’m supposed to love them. Going to museums demonstrates how smart and curious about the world you are, but I’m just not that into them. So I came up with a solution. When I do go to a museum, I pretend I’m shopping. (I guess the irony there is that I also strongly dislike shopping.) Anyway, in each new room of the museum, I play this game where I have to walk around and choose one thing I want to buy and identify a rationale for why. It’s a fun game to play with friends. It gets you talking about preferences and art and junk, and it forces you to slow down and look at that art instead of feeling crowded and stressed out.

Why not take the museum game to the streets, to the office, to any place where you need to slow down and enjoy the moment? Next time you’re overwhelmed in a crowd or by your anxious thoughts, go pretend shopping. Do you want to buy the pencil sharpener or the Ikea art? Do you want to buy the fire hydrant or the squirrel eating a nut while sitting on said hydrant? Think about why. This way you stop those pesky unpleasant thoughts, start noticing the actual details in the world around you, and shift your thoughts from internal worry to outernal (that should so be a word) wonder. The other great thing here is that you’re focusing on the thing you like and not the one you hate. That’s helpful to shift into a more positive mindset, something we’ll be working on later.

And don’t tell anyone about how I don’t like museums. That can be our little secret.
GAME 7: SHAKE IT OFF
I’m almost embarrassed to include this next game. It seems so obvious, but it always does the trick for me. It’s right there in line with the “stop and count to ten” method. You know, someone says something to make you mad. Then that same irritating person tells you that you look upset and that you should “just breathe” or “count to ten,” and then you want more than ever to crush that person with your bare hands? Yeah, me too.

So counting to ten doesn’t work so well for me. There’s nothing worse than being told to calm down when you’re upset. Feelings are feelings, and if we could just will them to change, we would probably just do that. So before someone can tell you to count or breathe, just shake it off.

During improv rehearsals, feelings can start to accumulate. People start feeling stressed out or exposed or ashamed or angry or frustrated. Lots of feelings are being explored during a good rehearsal. In order to reset, improvisers tend to just shake it off.

To shake it off, you shake everything—your head, arms, feet, and legs. It’s also especially effective to hop around a little and make that horse-neighing sound with your lips. Does that sound have a word? Plrhplrhplrh? Whatever that noise is when you loosen your tongue and lips and blow out, letting them vibrate.

This distracts your mind by getting the body moving, and the horse sound helps release some of the built-up pressure. It’s like pressing the reset button. I think it’s especially awesome because it’s so silly. When I count to ten, I calmly think about how angry I still am for ten long seconds. (What can I say? I’m really stubborn.) But when I hop around and exhale air and wiggle my whole body, it becomes extremely challenging for me to hold on to negative thoughts.

So try it. Hop, jump, wiggle, and neigh. Just shake it off. I mean, if it’s good enough for T. Swizzle…
GAME 8: REPEAT AFTER YOU (MANTRA)
This next game isn’t improv-specific. You just repeat something over and over in your head. This, at the very least, gives your squirrel brain something to focus on, and as you’ll see in later games, you can really choose your own adventure as to what mantra you want on repeat in your skull-place.

You can choose any phrase to think over and over, but I suggest something fairly positive, since we’re just beginning. Please don’t choose “I hate the world” or “Everyone is the worst.” Actually, you may already be thinking those things. Instead, take control. Choose something very specific and stick with it. Then see what happens. I’m thinking something like “What a nice day” or “I got this.”

What always happens to me is that I lose my mantra. Someone cuts in front of me, and my “I love everything” quickly turns into “I will seek and destroy you, you dumb face.” That’s normal. That’s totally okay, isn’t it? I hope so, but I’ll for sure ask my therapist. Either way, each interruption is just a perfect little moment to remind yourself of your mantra instead of letting the buzz-killing moment hijack it. Just pause. Remind. And get the original, positive mantra churning again.

Keep experimenting with different mantras. Sometimes corny works for the cool, and sappy works for the stoic. You won’t know until you try. Just keep track of what’s working. What’s making you feel lighter, more present, and just generally less irritable. You know, not wanting to seek and destroy dumb faces quite so much.
GAME 9: GOOD TOUCH
As we get older, it’s increasingly more discouraged for us to touch everything, slobber on stuff, and put everything in our mouths. (I mean, depending on your social milieu.) But babies are learning so much so fast, they’re notoriously in the moment. Learn from the wisdom of the diapered. Slow down and start touching stuff again!

Now I know there’s always a wise guy out there who’s apt to bend the spirit of this game into something more sordid. Stop right there, wise guy. This game applies only to inanimate objects. Plants, if you must. No people touching. It had to be said. Plus, we’ll get to healthy human interactions later in this book.

I’m talking about stopping and touching the roses. Not the thorns. Common sense, people. Stop and touch a tree, the fence, the table, napkins, and windows. Things other than your phone and credit cards.

It doesn’t have to be gratuitous. You don’t have to go on a touching rampage. Just notice objects and touch one every now and again. And really note all the details about how that thing looks, smells, and feels.

It’s hard to interact in a world we’re not noticing. Start setting the stage for later games now by slowing down and truly seeing, feeling, and hearing what’s already going on all around you.
GAME 10: SCHEDULE YOUR MONK TIME
I put a lot of stuff in my day planner, from walking the dog to picking up dry cleaning to finishing a long-term work project. I focus a lot of my mental energy on what I have yet to achieve and what I hope to complete. This is future thinking, and it keeps me from living in the moment, but we have to keep track of all the things we need to do in a day, right? I’m not twenty anymore, so if I don’t focus my energy on my future errands and write that shit down, I will most likely forget. Then I’ll be living in the past, regretting making the big mistake of not having a to-do list, an equally not-in-the-moment mode of thought.

So I’m not asking you to drop the to-do list. I would never dream of doing that myself. All I’m asking is that you schedule in your mindfulness, schedule in your monk time.

I simply write “Be” on a separate line in my to-do list. I make sure to look at it every day. I try to complete it as often as I can. It’s just a reminder to be present to my friends, family, and acquaintances. It’s a reminder to look at the world around me as it really is, without judgment and without defensiveness, just to take it all in and enjoy the moment. That simple little “Be” reminds me to stop planning the future and worrying about the past.

You can pick any word or phrase that works for you. Add it to your to-do list. Remind yourself to stop and enjoy the world as it really is. And the more you obsessively check your to-do list, the more you’ll be reminded to stop worrying and just be.

Now that you’re feeling more mindful and connected, let’s talk about some ways you can calm the hell down.

TIME-OUT: LET’S TALK ABOUT YOU

This is the first of four Time-Outs that will appear throughout the lessons. It’s my way of Zach Morrising you. I want time to stand still, so we can talk face-to-face, just you and me.

This Time-Out is about you getting the quality alone time you need to recharge your battery. In order to have a clear head for these games, you’re going to need some downtime, some time without other people pestering you.

Some people meditate. There are great apps that can help if you go this route. My brain is always on the go, so I struggle with meditation if I don’t use the apps. I need a guided meditation to let my thoughts go. It also helps me to imagine that my thoughts are clouds. I’m not forcing them to stop; that only causes more thoughts. I’m just observing them as they roll on by.

You can also take walks alone, or be all “Calgon, take me away” and take a bubble bath with some scented candles around the tub.

It doesn’t matter how you get your alone time, just that you’re getting it.

I’m glad we had our little talk.

Now, please proceed.

Photograph by Max Flatow

Clay Drinko, PhD, is an educator and the author of Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition. He writes for Psychology Today and Lifehack about the intersection of improv, science, and the everyday.

"In Play Your Way Sane, Clay Drinko provides a needed gift for turbulent times: a set of practices that open the heart, ease the mind and provide agency and opportunity. If you're feeling stuck, tired or out of control, buy this book and play these games. You will be grateful that you did."—Kelly Leonard, Executive Director of Insights and Applied Improvisation at Second City

"This book is as informative as it is hilarious. The author is knowledgeable and authentic, with a wicked sense of humor. (The cheeky chapter titles are a personal favourite). Packed full of practical and unique activities... a must have for anyone with anxiety or panic disorder." —Claire Eastham, Author of We're All Mad Here and F**K, I Think I'm Dying