Overthinking – how it impedes your performance, and how to stop

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Overthinking – what it isn’t

I love thinking. I’m wholeheartedly with FM Alexander in his belief that modern society suffers from a dearth of rational thought, and that in the mind of humanity “lies [our] ability to resist, to conquer and finally to govern the circumstance” of our lives.[1] I think that the Alexander Technique provides a stunning framework for helping us to improve the way we think and, as a result, the way we move.

I’m also pretty convinced that most of us ‘think’ too darn much – the wrong sorts of thought, and in the wrong quantities. For example, in his book Do The Work writer Steven Pressfield identifies a type of junk thinking which clouds our thoughts and prevents us from following through on the process that will help us finish our creative projects. He calls it chatter.

“when I say “Don’t think,” what I mean is: don’t listen to the chatter. Pay no attention to those rambling, disjointed images and notions that drift across the movie screen of your mind.”[2]

This type of thinking is destructive, but it isn’t the brand of problematic thinking that I want to focus on today. Instead, I want to warn you of the dangers of what I want to call ‘overthinking’. What I’m referring to is a brand of thinking that I see in good, conscientious students across many fields: music, Alexander Technique, writing, sport. It looks a bit like this:

Overthinking – case studies

  • The student who thinks so much about the details of going from sitting to standing that they are almost incapable of moving;
  • Recorder player so intent on making sure that every finger lands in the right place at the right time in a semi-quaver passage that they can’t play it fast enough and the passage falls into an untidy heap;
  • The championship-winning snooker player who works so hard going ‘back to basics’ on his cueing technique that he ends up arriving at every tournament with a different cue action.[3]

Overthinking is not a beginner fault. If you’re a beginner tennis player, you’re probably going to need to think carefully about the protocol for each shot that you play! But once you reach a certain standard of play, and you’re in the middle of a match, you probably need to start relying on the hard work you’ve done thinking about such things in your practice sessions. You have other things that need your conscious control and reasoning powers!

FM Alexander gave the example of a student who came to him wanting to improve his breathing. The student was teachable and ready to apply himself, and soon learned how to make a better use of his breathing mechanisms. FM continued:

Now it would be absurd to suppose that thereafter this person should in his waking moments deliberately apprehend each separate working of his lungs, any more than we should expect the busy manager of affairs constantly to supervise the routine of his well-ordered staff. He has acquired conscious control of that working, it is true, but once that control has been mastered, the actual movements that follow are given in charge of the “subconscious self” although always on the understanding that a counter order may be given at any moment if necessary.[4]

Note that last line: a counter order may be given at any moment, if it is considered necessary. That’s the difference between habitual movement and leaving the details up to the ‘subordinate controls of the body’. If we have done the work and really thought about how we want to carry out our activity, we can rest on it for as long as we think it useful or necessary. When it isn’t, we can send out different orders. We are still in control.

So do the work. Enjoy the work. And then allow yourself to reap the benefits of it.

[1] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat ed., p.17
[2] S Pressfield, Do the Work, Kindle ed., loc 256.
[3] Ronnie O’Sullivan, Ronnie, Orion 2003, p.158. He’s giving his opinion of Steve Davis.
[4] FM Alexander, MSI, p.60.
Image by bplanet from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Beat performance plateaus by changing point of view

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Performance plateau?

Are you experiencing a point of difficulty in one of your hobbies or work activities? Perhaps you can’t quite hit that tennis forehand the way you’d like, or nail that top G reliably? Possibly you’ve always thought the problem was intractable, or that you’d reached a ceiling on your abilities.

But have you considered that the reason why you’ve plateaued could be because you’re getting in your own way?

Performance plateau: the young swimmer

I had a taste of this from my son the other day. On the way home from school, he said he didn’t like swimming any more. I asked him why. He said it was because the teacher kept telling him to put his head in the water while swimming freestyle lengths. “But I do put my head in the water!” he said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes! … Some of the time…” he said, rather less vehemently.
“Okay. When do you put your head in the water?”
“I put it in for a bit, then I lift it up to breathe,” he replied.
“Ah. Is that what the teacher wants you to do to breathe?”
“Well, no. But it’s the way I do it.”
“Do you think the teacher would stop telling you off if you did what she asked?”
“Yes,” my son said. “But I want to do it my way.”

 

“My way” – Performance plateaus as a state of mind

And there you have it in a nutshell.

Most of us, when we go about the activities that make up our day-to-day lives, have ways that we like to do them. The ways we choose are based on our personal preferences, our experiences, and our beliefs about the right way to go about things.

But what if we’re wrong? What if our way is not the best way? What if our way of doing things is, in fact, the cause of the performance plateau that we’re experiencing?

FM Alexander was able to write that, after 20 years of teaching experience, he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.”*

Even worse than this, Alexander goes on to say that if a person has a very fixed idea of “their way” of doing things, they are likely to go on trying to do things “their way” even after the teacher has demonstrated that their way can’t be relied upon! My son, for example, knows that his swimming teacher is correct, and that his way of breathing is not helping him. But no amount of the teacher yelling at him is going to make him stop!

So what will?

 

A change of mind as the key to breaking performance plateaus

My son needs to change his mind. Currently he is held back by, to borrow Alexander’s phrase, his “fixed and unreasoning conception” about what he needs to do to breathe while swimming freestyle. He will need, in short, to give up his desire to feel right, in order to do the thing that will increase effectiveness.

 

Here are the steps to take:

  • A touch of honesty. Are you like my son – do you secretly know what is holding you back?
  • Thinking about teacher/mentor feedback. Are you consistently being given the same criticisms in feedback? Can you recognise these criticisms in your own performance?
  • Listening to teacher/mentor advice. Are you being given advice that you’re not following? Maybe you could have a go at trying it, if only to prove your teacher wrong!
  • Loosen up and be prepared to feel ‘wrong’. Sometimes, letting go of what seems ‘right’ is the only way forward. Loosen your grip, and see what happens!

Performance plateaus are not a lot of fun. Even though it might be scary, why not try tearing up the rule book you’ve got in your head, and have a go at the thing that feels ‘wrong’? And let me know how it turns out.

 

*FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT edition, p.294.
Image by Tup Wanders, flickr creative commons.

The talent myth – why we really can have a go at anything we choose

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Have you ever been faced with a complicated bit of arithmetic and thought ‘I’m just not good at maths’? Or struggled to run to catch the bus, wheezing and thinking ‘I was never sporty’? If so, then you may need to think again. The talent myth has you in thrall.

The talent myth – or the recognition that people having an ‘inbuilt’ natural ability is just a false belief – has become a bit of a commonplace in the past few years. Readers of Matthew Syed or Malcolm Gladwell are familiar with the concept of the 10 000 hours rule, and the concept of ‘putting in the hours’ to achieve mastery is well on the way to becoming a cliche in self-development blogs.

But the idea that talent is not a fait accompli delivered by genetics, but rather a quantity that can be developed and trained in anyone, is not a new one. Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki Method, firmly believed that there is no such thing as natural ability – that any child could exhibit remarkable abilities if they received a careful and nurturing environment in which to grow and mature.*  Notably, though his Method is now almost synonymous with musical training, he himself described his system as Talent Education.

Reading this, I was inspired to read again FM Alexander’s beliefs about children and education. Alexander is more careful about allowing there to be limits to a child’s potential within its genetic make-up. However, both men, when faced with the question of whether genetics or environment is the more important factor influencing a child’s future success, come down firmly on the side of environment.

And environment, dear readers, means us – parents, educators, friends, and general public. If Suzuki and Alexander are right, we create the conditions in which children develop their gifts – and their deficits – and then laud the gifts by labelling them ‘talent’. That’s the talent myth.

So how does the environment in which a child grows up create such a major impact on success? This is FM’s view:
The child of the present day … is the most plastic and adaptable of living things. At this stage the complete potentiality of conscious control is present… Unfortunately, the usual procedure is to thrust certain habits upon it without the least consideration of cause and effect, and to insist upon these habits until they have become subconscious and have passed from the region of intellectual guidance.**
In other words, children either choose or are forced to take on board ideas about what is right and normal, whether or not there is any logical reasoning behind them, and with no regard to whether the ideas will cause harm in the long run. And then they accept the ideas as normal, and choose how to act based upon them.
And this can generate odd effects. Things that we came to accept as true about ourselves when younger become unquestioned ‘facts’ as we grow up.
Suzuki tells the story of a young violinist who had come to believe that she had clumsy hands because she couldn’t play a passage as fast as she wanted. By an artful process of questioning and demonstration, Suzuki showed the girl that there wasn’t anything wrong with her fingers, merely about her idea of what her fingers could achieve.  When Suzuki gave her a different practice process to follow, she played the passage easily and without complaint.***
FM Alexander summed it up very simply in his second book:
I have no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.****
If we are to take Suzuki and Alexander at their word, we need to at least entertain the idea that our ideas about what we can do and what we can’t are just that – ideas. They are a product of our childhoods, of our schooling, of our friendships, and of our experiences. But there is nothing to say that our ideas are right, or accurate, or based on any firm foundation.
What if ‘tone deaf’ is just an idea?
What if ‘not sporty’ is just a label?
What if ‘not sciencey’ is just a decision we’ve made?
If this is true, then we’d be free to change our minds, and make a decision to create an entirely new version of ourselves.
And wouldn’t that be fun?

 

* Suzuki, S., Nurtured by Love, Exposition Press 1969, pp.46-7.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.73.
*** Suzuki, op.cit., p.48.
**** Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.294.

Thought – performance mismatch: How to actually do what you think you are doing

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Do you reliably do what you think you are doing? Have you ever had the experience of doing an activity (like singing or performing) and discovering afterwards that you’re not doing it the way you thought you were?

It’s a disconcerting experience. The last time I experienced it most forcibly, I was playing recorder and preparing for a concert with my group Pink Noise. We were playing a rather lovely piece called La Lusingnola by Merula, and we wanted a sound at the beginning that was not legato, but not spiky either – more a sort of portato articulation. So we played and rehearsed, and thought we were doing rather well.

As part of my rehearsing process, I began using my iPad to tape my practice sessions. I taped the Merula, and then listened back to the recording. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I wasn’t playing portato at all! What sounded to me like portato as I played was coming across to an audience far more like staccato. It was too spiky.

I wasn’t doing what I thought I was doing.

As an Alexander Technique teacher, I see a lot of actors and singers with a similar issue. They have a lesson with me because  when they open their mouths to speak or sing, they feel tension in the back of their neck that troubles them and affects their voices. Typically, I will ask them to sing a little bit for me, or at least do everything that they would normally do to begin singing and then just not sing.

And what do I most often see?

They aren’t doing what they think they are doing.

They are not opening their mouths to sing.

They are leaving their jaw still and ‘opening their heads’ to sing instead! In other words, rather than just let the jaw drop and leave the head alone, my students are trying to leave the jaw completely still (using muscular tension) and then use muscles at the back of the head to pull it back.

In both cases the mouth is open, but the result is very different.

Open jaw: 

  • small number of muscles used
  • relationship of head to body is left alone
  • breathing mechanisms left free to do their job

 Open head:

  • muscles activated to hold jaw in place – bad for singing
  • muscles activated in back of neck – more muscular tension than needed
  • relationship of head to body altered for the worse
  • combination of various tensions likely to upset breathing and singing mechanisms

If ‘opening the head’ is so unhelpful, why do we do it? How is it that this happens?

According to FM Alexander, often we have never spent time thinking about HOW we go about most of our activities – we just do them. We get into the habit of performing a certain act in a certain way, and we experience a certain feeling in connection with it which we recognize as “right.” (CCCI, p.296.) If we even think about how we are going about an activity, we tend to assume that we are doing exactly what we think we are doing – that intention and results will be perfectly aligned.

So even if we notice that we aren’t quite having the success we want, or worse, we experience discomfort during the activity (like a tight neck while singing), we keep going because we don’t associate it with our manner of going about our activities.

When we go to an Alexander Technique lesson, or see the video that shows us what we are actually doing, we realise that, in FM’s words, “what we have hitherto recognized as “right” is wrong.” (CCCI, p.296.) We have to change our conception of the activity. We have to make a decision to do something different.

Next time you are singing, or playing flute, or even doing the dishes, just remember to take the time to stop and question: are you really doing what you think you are doing? Are you sure? And what will you change to make it even better?

 

Losing “I can’t” – the importance of mental attitude in performance

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When I teach Alexander Technique, I typically encourage students to come in with a activity they’d like to work on. It could be anything from sitting, to running, to juggling, or to using the pedal on a sewing machine. When I ask them why they want to look at their activity in class, they typically use one of the phrases:

  • I’m having trouble with x.[insert activity here]
  • I can’t play this passage.
  • It could have been better.
  • I’m okay up to this point, but then it all goes wrong.
  • I don’t breathe properly.
  • I always run out of air before the end.
  • I can’t hit that note.
  • I’m not doing as well as I’d like.

And when my students say their variation on these phrases, a line or two by FM Alexander runs through my mind: “when…we are seeking to give a patient conscious control, the consideration of mental attitude must precede the performance of the act prescribed … He often finds an enormous difficulty in altering some trifling habit of thought that stands between him and the benefit he clearly expects.” *

FM is pointing us towards an important truth. So often, the way we think about a problem is not only a part of the problem, but actually stands between us and the change of attitude and perspective necessary to find a solution. Or, to quote Stephen Covey, the way we see the problem is the problem.”

So next time you find yourself saying a variant on the above statements, try to find a new and more positive way of articulating the same thing:

  • I want to achieve x, but haven’t yet worked out how to do it.
  • I don’t yet play this passage the way I envisage it.
  • It hasn’t reached my highest standard, but there was improvement.
  • I haven’t managed to continue my thinking into this part [of the piece/action] yet.
  • I’m not sure how the breathing mechanism works.
  • There’s a reason why I run out of air, but I haven’t worked it out yet.
  • I don’t know why that note doesn’t come out right yet.
  • My current standard of performance hasn’t yet achieved the high standard I’ve set myself.

Can you see how these are more open? They either acknowledge the progress already made, or provide openings that will help us to question why things aren’t working out yet.

And the key word is YET. Alter those trifling habits of thought, follow the process of questioning and exploring, and good things will happen.

Let me know how you are going to restate your difficulties in the comments. Or if you’re adept at doing this already, let me know what benefits you’ve experienced. The more evidence that it works, the more people will want to give it a go!

*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat edition, p.52.
Photo by Gordon Plant. 

 

 

“You let the tiredness out!” – Fatigue and Alexander Technique

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Last week I wrote about why it is that working with the Alexander Technique can have a dramatic improvement upon your energy levels. But what about when it doesn’t? What if you experience a short-term fatigue?

The quote in the title is from my husband. When he has Alexander lessons, it is a common experience for him to feel all the usual beneficial stuff – lighter, freer, less muscular discomfort – but also one less welcome sensation. Tiredness.

Similarly, I have had students who experience a tiredness reaction to a lesson so extreme that they could barely keep awake!

So what happened to my husband and my students? Why did they feel so tired? What follows is my best guess on the subject.

 

Habits of body, habits of thought.

In his first book Man’s Supreme Inheritance, FM Alexander is very clear that there is a relationship between movement and thought. He writes: “the majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of thought quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence.”

So – what we do with our bodies is the consequence of beliefs we have or decisions we make. If this is so – and I believe that it is – then we could create a story of a hypothetical student.

 

I can well imagine that, if our hypothetical student has had a particularly tiring or stressful time, they may well make the decision that, for whatever reason, they are not able to allow themselves to rest. They decide to keep going. And in order to keep going and keep concentrating on their work, they turn on muscles (FM writes about this in Man’s Supreme Inheritance too).

And then they keep them turned on. And on. And on.

They forget, in fact, to turn them off.

So now, in addition to the original fatigue, our hypothetical student is expending energy on the needless use of muscles.

When, therefore, they come for their Alexander Technique lesson, and the teacher convinces them to give up the excess muscular energy that they were using to counteract the fatigue, our student is going to feel the full force of the tiredness that they were originally fighting. In the short term, they will probably feel terrible. But if they allow themselves to rest, in the long term they will feel better because they will have stopped the unnecessary muscular activity that was not just masking but adding to the fatigue.

My question to you is: does this ring true for you? Do you think you might be masking your fatigue with extra activity? If so, can I urge you to stop, allow yourself to feel tired, and rest? It might not be great in the short term, but in the long run you’ll be so much more effective!

Let me know what you think!

Image by Ambro from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

‘Sit Up Straight!’ – Does Alexander Technique help with self-control?

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Is there a link between self control and the Alexander Technique?

On Monday morning on BBC Radio 4, the presenters of the Today programme interviewed Professor Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength. In the interview, he suggested that “self control is really the best thing you can give your chilrdren,” and gave an example of a simple way to improve one’s willpower as an adult.

“The good news about self control is that it’s never too late. We’ve done studies even with adults, showing that a couple of weeks of training and practice, even things like working on your posture, can strengthen your willpower … The first study we did, we told people, ‘Whenever you think about it, sit up straight, stand up straight.’ The thing about willpower is that if you strengthen it in one sphere makes you better at everything else.” *

So… If you tell people to sit up straight or stand up straight, their self control improves. And if their self control improves, the evidence is that they become more successful and better liked. So far, so good…

I have a couple of things I’d like to talk about off the back of this interview:
1. How the Alexander Technique can explain the basis behind the positive changes Baumeister witnessed;
2. Why it is that Baumeister’s approach may end up doing more harm than good.
I will cover point 2 next week.

 

Alexander on habits and self control

FM Alexander stated all the way through his books that he believed that the troubles people experienced (with things like bad habits) were the result of what he called subconscious control – depending upon instinct and feeling for guidance, “so that today man walks, talks sits, stands, performs in fact the innumerable mechanical acts of daily life without giving a thought to the psychical and physical processes involved.” **

Alexander wanted us to move beyond this subconscious guidance, and to enliven our reasoning faculties. “For in the mind of man lies the secret of his ability to resist, to conquer, and finally to govern the circumstance of his life…” ***

So how do we bring to life our reasoning faculties? Well, Alexander said we could change to something more beneficial “if once we can clear away that first impeding habit of thought which stands between us and conscious control.” ****

In other words, if we make an effort to change the way we think, then we start to change not just towards more beneficial physical conditions, but more beneficial mental ones too. We will  begin to develop a reasoning facility that will actually help us to keep changing and improving. As Alexander says:

For when real conscious control has been obtained  habit need never become fixed. It is not truly a habit at all, but an order or series of orders given to the subordinte controls of the body…”

And interestingly, this sounds errily similar to  statement made by reviewer Jamie Holmes in his assessment of Baumeister’s book: “One implication is already apparent.Since repeated behaviors eventually turn into habits, improving willpower long term requires a unique strategy—a habit of changing habits, of continually expanding our zones of comfort.”

The way forward?

All of this so far, I fear, may have sounded a bit dry. But it is actually really important. Alexander is telling us that nothing is fixed.

Let me repeat that. Nothing is fixed.

If we begin to use our brains and take a good hard look at the things we do, we can make beneficial changes. If you habitually slump, for example, you can reason out where you would bend to sit if not slumping. You can reason out where the muscles are that do the job of bending your legs. You can find out what a curvy shape the spine actually has. You can think about whether different chairs would need different approaches to sitting. these are just some of the questions you could ask yourself.

You can do all these things. You are resourceful, intelligent, and determined. You have the power to change for the better. So what are you going to start to change today?

 

*Prof Baumeister, transcribed from the BBC interview. The link is in the text above.
**FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.16.
*** ibid., p.58.
**** ibid.
Image (C) STROINSKI.PL

3 steps for changing bad habits

My son recently reported that his teacher had said, in class, that ‘it is important to make sure that when you learn to do something, you are careful to learn the right way to do things. Otherwise, you could develop bad habits. And’, she said, ‘it is very hard to break a bad habit.’

What do you think? Was she right?

I’ll give you a moment to think about it.

Ready? Let’s investigate!

 

The average view of habit.

Most people talk about habits as though the habit is something external to them: “I have this bad habit of slumping,” one of my students might be hear to say. The habit seems to have a separate existence, and has atached itself, carbuncle-like, upon the student. It sneakily intrudes into the student’s day without permission, and certainly without consent. And if the student could just detach this nasty habit, then all would be well.

 

FM on habit.

FM Alexander wrote very clearly against this conception of habits. He said:

“the establishment of a habit in a particular person is associated in that person with a certain habitual manner of using the self, and that because the organism works as an integrated whole, change of a particular habit in the fundamental sense is impossible as long as this habitual manner of use persists.”*

In other words, I have a ‘manner of use’ of myself that is particular to me. It is my ‘me-ness’. Any habits that I have are not additions to this me-ness. They are a part of the me-ness (manner of use of myself).

And if I want to change the habit, I have to make a change to the me-ness.

 

Changing the me-ness

So… It sounds quite heavy, doesn’t it? It sounds like my son’s teacher might be right – changing habits is hard work!

Except…

Making a change to the me-ness is relatively fast and simple. Because we control our me-ness. We just need to change our thinking. So, for example, I could decide that I don’t want to be lumbered with the extra kilos that I gained over Christmas, and that I am going to be more controlled in my calorie intake over the next few weeks.

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Ah!  I hear you say. But that’s just a decision! How are you going to stick to it?

By using Alexander’s secret. He wrote: “all those who wish to change something in themselves must learn to make it a principle of life to inhibit their immediate reaction… They must continue this inhibition whilst they employ the new direction of their use.” **

To carry on with my dieting example, the next time I feel peckish and head for the kitchen, I can stop and, prior to picking up that biscuit, I can remember my decision and renew my decision to carry on with my calorie control.

My son’s teacher is right that learning the best way to do things is important. But changing habits is only as long and hard as you choose to make it. And that’s your ‘me-ness’ at work, too.

The process?

1. Make a decision. Change happens at the speed of thought!
2. When you are tempted to respond in the old way, STOP!
3. Keep stopping your old response, and carry on with your new response.

Give it a go, and let me know what you think.

 

*FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p,580.
** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the Irdeat Edition, p,473f.
Image by Ariel da Silva Parreira, stock.xchng

Put the patient down!

Last Friday, I travelled to Southampton to give a talk about Alexander Technique to the women of the NHS Southampton and Salisbury Breast Imaging Unit (part of SUHT).

These women are amazing. They carry out all the mammograms that form the main part of the screening programme against breast cancer in their part of the world. Sometimes they work from their comfortable and welcoming base in Princess Anne Hospital in Southampton. More often, they have to drive a large van up to an hour to a town or village in their catchment area. They park up, then spend the day carrying out the scans using the equipment on the van. For every patient who comes through their door, they have to greet the patient, (usually) calm them down, help to position the patient in the imaging equipment, take four images, label everything carefully, then help the patient out the door. They do all of this in seven minutes. Yes, seven minutes per patient.

Some of the patients are small and birdlike, and have – how can I put it? – assets that befit their small and birdlike frames. Other patients are considerably larger, and have assets that are rather heftier. And the mammographers have to heft these assets into the imaging equipment, and help to hold them there so that the images are clear and the patient doesn’t have to come back for a rescan. They do this ‘hefting’ (can’t think of a better word for it!) by extending their thumb and creating a V-shape with their hands, then ‘sweeping’ the assets into the machine (‘sweeping’ is their term for it). And they do this for every patient. Every seven minutes. Every day.

These lovely mammographers are starting to suffer from shoulder and back pain, and RSI-like symptoms in their hands and thumbs. They invited me down to Southampton to give them some tips and advice on how they can work to improve their working conditions and thereby alleviate some of the pain.

So what did I do? Well, one of the things that I did was to look at their hands, and then tell this story…

One of my least favourite household jobs is filling the washing machine had in Australia). One day I was bent over double, shovelling clothes through the door. One of my son’s socks had escaped, and was a few steps away. Without straightening, I walked over to get it, walked back, then put it in the machine. Then I noticed my husband’s hankie, halfway across the kitchen floor. Again, without bothering to straighten, I went to get it. The machine was full. Without bothering to stand up, I got the detergent ball, put it in the door, then turned on the machine.

Then I noticed the cat water bowl was empty. Without bothering to stand up, I picked up the bowl, filled it, put it back. I went on with other bits of cleaning. After a few minutes, my back started to feel tired. I realised that I still hadn’t bothered to stop bending over. I was walking around the house like Groucho Marx! I hadn’t yet stopped filling the washing machine!

My mammographer students were no different. Even though they had stopped scanning for the day, even though there were no patients anywhere nearby, their hands were still ready to heft and sweep. When I pointed this out to them, most of them looked down at their hands, and allowed their thumbs to go limp. They sighed in relief! They admitted to me that, now that they thought about it, they realised that they always kept their hand ‘ready to sweep’ – from first thing in the morning, to last thing at night.

They had forgotten to put the patient down.

My simple suggestion was this. What would happen if the mammographers put the patient down – not just at the end of the day, but between patients?

And what about you? Is your right hand always ready to click the mouse button? Are your shoulders permanently prepared to lift that bag/child/rucksack?

What would happen if you ‘put the patient down’?