“Just tell me what to do!” – Why direct instructions won’t help you


The Gopher’s Creed – “just tell me what to do and I’ll do it!” – pops up in my classes quite often. People come to me for coaching because there is something about the way they are going about their daily activities that is unsatisfactory. And often they want me to tell them exactly what is not satisfactory, and then give them a set of instructions on how to fix it.

But I won’t do that.

I refuse to be drawn, not because I’m mean (though that may be true!) or because I have ulterior motives. I’m not giving my students what they think they want because… It won’t help them.

Here’s why.

1. Too big/too detailed. My student sees the problem as specific and only involving a small number of factors. Usually I look at the student and see the specific problem as part of a larger, more general pattern of misuse. If I gave them a recipe, it would be so big and have so many parts that they’d be swamped.

2. Too unfamiliar. Students think that, because they can do what they “will to do” in familiar acts with familiar sensory feedback,  they’ll be able to do what they plan in acts that are unfamiliar. This is like me thinking that I’ll be able to make my arms function completely correctly the first time I attempt a serve in tennis, just because I can use them to play a recorder!

3. Feelings aren’t fact. FM Alexander got told by his acting teacher to ‘take hold of the floor with his feet’. It took him years to realise the tension in his legs might not have been what his teacher had in mind.

As FM  says, “The belief is very generally held that if only we are to,d what to do in order to correct a wrong way of doing something, we can do it, and that if we FEEL we are doing it, all is well. Al my experience, however, goes to show that this belief is a delusion.” *

4. Doing too much. Most students run into troubles in the first place because they are using too much muscular tension, and often in muscles that can’t possible do the job the student is trying to use them for. And then they want me to give them something to DO to fix this?!


So if I’m not going to give my students a recipe to do, what DO I give them?

  • The chance to experience doing less – less effort, better directed effort.
  • An opportunity to think through with clarity what they actually need to do when they carry out their chosen activity. This doesn’t take long, but I find people need encouragement to allow themselves the time to carry out this step. They are too busy making haste to do what it takes to really speed ahead.
  • Knowledge about what moves where and how. A bit of knowledge about the body is priceless.
  • The challenge to keep thinking – even when it seems hard, even when the results feel odd, even if it seems wrong.

So ditch the desire for a set of instructions to do, and take the challenge of choosing to do less and think more.

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.418.
Image by Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalphotos.net