You can Improve Performance by Doing Less: Why it Works, and 4 Tips to Harness its Power

61263_9449Have you ever wondered how the truly great artists manage to create their masterpieces? Have you ever listened to Yo-Yo Ma play cello, or watched Roger Federer play tennis, or Fred Astaire dance, and considered how they got that good? Well, practice is a big part of it, absolutely. But I want to suggest that the great artists have all realised the power of a simple process: they understood that you can improve performance by doing less.

Novelist Rolf Dobelli recounts a story of the Pope asking Michelangelo, “Tell me the secret of your genius. How have you created the statue of David, the masterpiece of all masterpieces?” Michelangelo’s reply is remarkable: “It’s simple. I removed everything that is not David.”*

This story, for me, cuts to the heart of what the Alexander Technique is all about, because it speaks to the principle of economy of effort. Michelangelo had an idea of what he wanted his David to be, and then he cut away everything that wasn’t a part of his vision. Simple. Elegant.

Economy of effort to improve performance

Back in 1910, FM Alexander realised that people had a problem with economy of effort. He wrote: “Unfortunately, all conscious effort exerted in attempts at physical actions causes in the great majority of the people of today such tension of the muscular system concerned as to lead to exaggeration rather than eradication of the defects already present.” **

Bluntly, when FM looked around at the world, he thought that people weren’t having the success they craved because they were doing too much. And a lot of us are STILL doing too much, or going about things the wrong way. Or even doing too much WHILE going about things the wrong way! And then we worry, because we aren’t achieving the results we expected.

If that sound crazy, well, it’s because it is crazy. But it’s also very human. We’ve learned from a very early age that doing more is the socially expected course of action. Want to succeed? Do more. Even if you’re not sure you’re doing the right thing in the first place. I’m sure you, like me, have had the experience of playing music, or acting, or hitting a tennis ball, wanting to improve performance, and actually making things worse.

The solution?

To improve performance by doing less. If you think you’re doing too much – whether physically or mentally, try doing a little less. The game I often give my students is the 50% less game – ‘can you do this with 50% less effort?’

And when you take away the unnecessary, what are you left with? I ran across this quote from Alexander teacher Marjorie Barstow. It very much speaks to this idea of taking away the unnecessary. She is quoted as saying to a student, “All you have is the absence of what you had.”

Michelangelo’s absence was David.

So how do you achieve an absence? Here are my tips.

 Keys to Doing Less.

Have a good idea of what you want to achieve. Steven Covey talks about things being created twice. Before the physical creation there is a mental creation. The better your mental creation, the better your idea of where you want to end up.

Know your resources. I can’t give a quote or a footnote, but I’m guessing that Michelangelo chose both his materials and his tools carefully, picking ones that were appropriate to his intentions. We need to do that, too. This may mean going out and buying the right sort of shoes if we plan to start running. It may mean finding out where our hip joints are.

Watchfulness. I’m willing to bet that Michelangelo didn’t wield his hammer and chisel mindlessly! He would have been incredibly watchful, making sure that he didn’t cut away more than he needed to, and that he cut away in the correct places.

No preconceptions about the effort required. This may sound like I’m contradicting tip number 1. But I’m not. Having a goal is one thing, but keeping an open mind about how little effort you may need to achieve that goal is quite another.

Yes, it takes a little bit of work. But will it take any more than all the unnecessary effort we’ve been channelling into our activities? Probably not. And if we are successful, we may well be amazed at how easily we can take away ‘all that is not David.’


* Rolf Dobelli, The Art of Thinking Clearly, Sceptre Books, p.304.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT edition, p.62.
Photograph by Richard Simpson, stock.xchng