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

Overthinking lightbulb

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

5 Alexander Technique steps to everyday happiness: 5. Keep experimenting

In my reading of FM Alexander’s works recently, I was reminded very strongly of the supreme importance of experimentation. Alexander writes:

“We must always remember that the vast majority of human beings live very narrow lives, doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts day by day, and it is this fact that makes it so necessary that we should acquire conscious control of the mental and physical powers as a whole, for we otherwise run the risk of losing that versatility which is an essential factor in their development.” *

The phrase in this that stopped me in my tracks was that first one, “the vast majority of human beings live very narrow lives, doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts day by day…” Is this me? I asked myself.

Is this you? And even if it is true of me or you, does it really matter if we do and think the same things day by day?

legoplay

Why it matters.

I am about to say something controversial. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if you decide to spend the next decade or three slumping. It isn’t going to kill you. With only a few potential exceptions, the way you sit or walk isn’t going to be a life or death issue.

But it is a quality of life issue.

If we choose to do the same things in the same way day after day, or worse, if we don’t even realise we are doing the same things in the same way day after day, we risk dulling our ability to be versatile. We lose our skill at rolling with the punches. Which means that when we experience some sort of (possibly externally initiated) form of sudden change, like an injury or illness or sudden redundancy from work, we struggle to know what to do.

 

Even if we don’t experience anything so major, if we stay content with doing and thinking the same stuff day by day, we risk a far more subtle kind of injury – the dulling of our enjoyment of things.

Alexander’s definition of happiness is the kind of absorption seen in a child doing something that interests it. And having watched my own son, what I have noticed is that this absorption is most apparent when he is experimenting.

He doesn’t build the same structures with his Lego, slavishly following the instruction book. He builds the bricks that way once, takes it apart, and then goes freeform. He experiments. He plays. He messes up, gets frustrated, pulls it apart, then tries again. And each thing he builds is fascinating.

According to Alexander, versatility is important. And we build versatility by playing and experimenting. We build it by getting things wrong, getting frustrated, going back to the beginning and trying again.

So. Tell me: what will you experiment with this week?

 

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.65.
Image by Afonso Lima, stock.xchng