Are you running into a brick wall in the practice room, out on the tennis court, or on the pitch? Do you find yourself working on something, but to no avail? It is very likely that you are suffering from a case of misdirected effort!
Misdirected effort: a case study!
High school English was once of the most frustrating experiences of my life. I was studying for my HSC (sort of the equivalent of the UK A levels), and I really wanted to improve my marks in my English essays. But it didn’t seem to matter how many extra hours of study I put in – my marks never really got any better.
Have you had an experience like that? I have had similar experiences as a musician, and my students certainly have reported frustrations in a similar vein. It’s annoying not to see improvement. Lack of progress can be utterly demoralising. And often the problem could be solved so very easily.
The question we fail to ask
Back in high school English class, I failed to ask myself a really important question, mostly because I was too busy reading literary criticism texts to improve my scores. My students fail to ask themselves this too, again because they are too focussed on what they are doing. I’ve known sportsmen, even maths and science students who missed this question too.
‘Am I directing my effort to the right place?’
According to Prof Barbara Oakley, this phenomenon even has a name: the Einstellung effect. It’s where an idea that you already have in mind prevents you from finding a better idea or solution. In effect, you are so wedded to one way of working that any other doesn’t even have a chance of entering your head!
Why do we suffer from misdirected effort?
But why do we behave in this way? According to FM Alexander, it comes down to our belief systems. He said in 1923,
“We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.”
Now it might seem obvious to say that people will think and act according to the make-up of their genes, beliefs and life experience, but note the word he uses to describe them: peculiarities. He isn’t being pejorative or mean – he’s just saying that sometimes we don’t believe things that are hugely sensible. We construct ideas about what we can and can’t do based on experiences (which we may have misinterpreted at the time), memories (which we may not have recalled accurately), and things we’ve picked up from all manner of places (and which may not be true).
So if you think about it, it is hardly surprising that sometimes we get stuck on a particular idea or course of action, and are thoroughly unable to even see that we are stuck!
The key to getting unstuck is to develop the mental discipline of stepping back and asking yourself if there is something that you are doing that is getting in your way. This was the very first question that Alexander asked himself when he wanted to solve his vocal hoarseness, and it’s a great question for us all to use.
Marga Biller, project director of Harvard’s Learning Innovations Laboratory, came up with these four questions that I think expand on Alexander’s question in useful ways. They were originally intended for teachers dealing with organisation change, but I think these questions are great for anyone. Here they are:
- Do I need to think, behave, do or perceive in a new way?
- Is there previous learning that is getting in the way of my thinking, behaving or perceiving in new ways?
- Is what I am trying to learn a threat/challenge to my identity, to how I see myself or how I see the world?
- Would trying harder give me the results I am looking for or might it create more entrenchment?
If we ask ourselves these questions, we have the opportunity to see what mental block we have put in front of ourselves. Once we know how we are blocking ourselves, we will know what areas to work upon so that we can direct our effort more effectively. This may mean approaching a difficult semi-quaver passage from the tail end instead of from the beginning, and working backwards. It may mean slowing down, and that may feel odd. It may mean stopping and taking a walk!
When we ask ourselves questions, we give ourselves the opportunity to change. And that is the key to sustained improvement.
 Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Kindle ed., p.19 (loc 345)
 FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat, p.304.
 Levitin, D., The Organized Mind, Penguin, p.50.
 Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Orion, p.25.