Does Working Harder Really Work?


According to the BBC, Greece is being asked by its Eurozone creditors to increase the working week to six days. Musicians routinely play a kind of workaholic one-upmanship about how many hours they practice each day. Children seem to be given increasingly large amounts of homework to do.

The world seems to believe that the way to achieve more is to work harder. By which they mean: work for longer. But does this really work? If you increase the number of hours you spend at a task, will you really be more effective?

Of course, it depends on what you are actually doing in all those extra hours. FM Alexander was once confronted by a pupil who insisted that, even if the activity was wrong, it was better to exert oneself and try hard than not to try at all. Alexander countered by suggesting that ‘trying hard’ in the wrong direction was still going in the wrong direction. He said that

It is not the degree of “willing” or “trying,” but the way in which the energy is directed, that is going to make the “willing” or “trying” effective.*

In other words, it really doesn’t matter how fast you are driving if you are on the wrong road. It doesn’t matter how many times a musician plays a semi quaver passage if they’re getting it wrong every time. It doesn’t matter how many hours you spend at your desk if you don’t have a clear idea of what work you should be doing.

This is the strategy I’m using in my recorder practice sessions, and I think it could be useful in other places too.

  • Decide what it is you want to achieve.
  • Decide on the easiest way to achieve it.
  • Do what you’ve decided is best.
  • Stop.

Once you’ve become proficient at setting goals and achieving them, you can increase the number of tasks and the number of hours worked. But in the beginning, go for quality instead of quantity. And don’t forget to let me know how you get on!


* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.440.
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