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Why Alexander Technique? Choose continual improvement

Continual improvement could be as tricky - and as rewarding - as climbing a mountain, as this man is.

Last week I spoke about the counter-cultural nature of the Alexander Technique. I wrote that people who use the Alexander Technique to change the way they think in order to change the way they move, work from an opposite assumption to the way most people live. That is to say, the Alexander Technique does not hold to the view of inexorable physical deterioration. We who work with Alexander’s ideas believe – or at least experiment with – the idea that continuing improvement is possible and attainable no matter what your age.

So why do we believe this? What are the physical mechanisms that make this possible? And what are the implications of it for our day-to-day life?

The body – geared for health

I’ve recently been reading Dr Michael Greger’s book, the provocatively titled How Not to Die. [1] His premise, stated right from the very first sentence of his book, is that death from old age doesn’t really exist. We deteriorate (and die) because we get ill, and at least some of that illness is created by choices we make during our lifetime. Greger’s focus is on diet, and you can take or leave his ideas – I present it here because it is an interesting parallel. 

Because… what if this is true on a movement level? What if the beliefs we have about movement lead to physical choices that can either help us consistently move well, or cause us to experience consistent deterioration?

Alexander’s discovery

When FM Alexander first investigated his vocal troubles, he went to the doctor and tried various treatments, but without success. After a particularly disastrous performance, and having followed the doctor’s treatment plan carefully, Alexander went back to the doctor and asked the following question:

‘Is it not fair, then,’ I asked him, ‘to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?’[2]

There are a number of points about this question that are really important.

  • If Alexander was doing something to cause his voice trouble, It wasn’t a structural problem – it wasn’t that his vocal mechanism was broken, or that he had an infection.
  • If Alexander was doing something, he could in theory just stop doing it.
  • If he just stopped doing the thing that caused the trouble, then the trouble would disappear of its own accord.
  • When the trouble disappeared, his vocal mechanism would work fine.
  • If Alexander’s vocal mechanism worked fine when he didn’t interfere with it, then we could extrapolate that all of his system would work fine if not subject to interference.
  • If that’s true of FM Alexander, it’s probably true of us, too.
  • We could also extrapolate that, if it is possible to use our structures in a way that causes them to work poorly, then it is also possible to organise our movement to take advantage of our structural integrity. If we did this, we would experience improvement.
  • If we did this consistently, we would experience continual improvement.

The concept of continual improvement

What if it was really true that your body, even if subject to injury or disease, will try to function to its best? What if bodies are intended to function well? This idea, the concept of being just fine as we are, is one of the working assumptions of the Alexander Technique. I love it because it is hopeful. I enjoy the idea that I can experience continual improvement in the way I move by working on changing what and how I think.

It helped Alexander sort out his vocal troubles. It helped me recover movement and flexibility in my arms, and gave me the tools to cure my stage fright. What can it do for you?

[1] Gregor, M. & Stone, G., How Not to Die, London, Macmillan, 2016.

[2] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.25.

Photo by Michele Campeotto – used under Creative Commons 2.0

Why learn Alexander Technique? Choose to be different

All the apples in this image are different - people who learn Alexander Technique choose to be different.

A few years ago I did a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) through Coursera – an introduction to psychology. One of my favourite parts of it was the description of a basic idea from social psychology. In this idea, we can all place ourselves on a spectrum between the extremes of complete individuation and total conformity to a group.

I found this a really interesting idea, partly because we move along depending on the situation we’re in, but also because it reminded me of a truth about what I teach. More importantly, it reminded me of a reason why people sometimes balk at choosing to learn Alexander Technique. The Alexander Technique is counter-cultural.

Same old, same old…

FM Alexander noticed back in 1910 that people in the society of his time had a serious problem with inertia:

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… [1]

The people FM saw around him conformed to what they thought was normal – even if what they accepted as normal was a kind of managed deterioration of their physical abilities. He wrote:

The trouble, whatever it is, is endured in the first instance; it is looked upon as a nuisance … no steps are taken to get rid of it, and the trouble grows until, by degrees, it is looked upon as a necessity… As long as the disease can be kept within certain bounds, no effort is made to fight it.[2]

But it isn’t only London of 1910 that has a problem of accepting decline and deterioration as normal. We do that, too. When I turned 45, a friend half-jokingly told me that I’d reached the age where it was obligatory to utter a groan when getting out of a chair, and a contented sigh when seated! My friend was teasing me, but it points to a deeper truth about what we as a society expect: we expect to ‘put up with things’. We expect inexorable deterioration. If we get the odd spot of discomfort, we just live with it, and even expect it to get worse.

And there is no reason why this should be so.

Learn Alexander Technique to be counter-cultural

At its heart, I think the Alexander Technique is profoundly counter-cultural, because it is profoundly anti-inertia. It says that change is possible. It reminds us that not every problem we experience is structural – sometimes we are responsible for our own discomfort. And if we are responsible for our troubles, then we don’t need to wait on an expert to solve it for us. We can learn the right tools to help get out of trouble again for ourselves.

As FM said,

I turn my attention particularly to the many who say, “I am quite content as I am.” To them I say … if you are content to be the slave of habits instead of master of your own mind and body, you can never have realised the wonderful inheritance that is yours by right of the fact that you were born a reasoning, intelligent man or woman. [3]

Don’t settle. Why just live with ideas and movement patterns that don’t help you, when the solutions are available and easy to learn? Why not take up the challenge, be counter-cultural, and decide to take on change?

Will you learn Alexander Technique?

[1] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.65.

[2] ibid., pp.64-5.

[3] ibid., pp.67-68.

Image of apples by Artemas Ward [Public domain].

Freedom is: the gap between stimulus and response

Over the past few weeks I’ve written about FM Alexander’s approach to planning an activity: setting a goal, analysing conditions present, reasoning out a means, and putting the means into action. FM’s experience was that he needed to find a new protocol for speaking that he could use to replace his unhelpful instinctive protocol. When he tried to put it into action, however, he found he had two problems. First, he found it difficult to stop the old unhelpful protocol from jumping ahead of his new protocol. Next, he realised that one of the reasons this might be happening was that the old protocol had been well rehearsed while the new one had barely been rehearsed at all. How to solve these problems?!

Last week I discussed mental practice as the means Alexander used to learn his new protocol. This week I’ll address Alexander’s approach for preventing the near instantaneous application of the old unhelpful protocol.

Stimulus and response

Once FM had created his new protocol for speaking, he still found that he didn’t successfully use it as he intended. As we discussed last week, one issue he identified was that his old instinctive protocol was well-learned and thoroughly practised, and so dominated the new plan he’d made. But there was another issue, too. Alexander realised that

…an immediate response [to do the old protocol] was the result of a decision on my part to do something at once, to go directly for a certain end … with the inevitable result that my old wrong habitual use was again and again brought into play.[1]

Alexander was acting at once to the stimulus to use his voice. His response was immediate. He was a bit like those people – you probably know one – who will answer their phone the moment it rings, no matter how inappropriate the situation. There was a stimulus (to speak / the phone rings) and his decision was to respond immediately.

What’s between stimulus and response? It’s your decision

That’s the most remarkable part of this section of Evolution of a Technique, in my view. Alexander realised that he had made a decision about the manner of his response, and that decision coloured everything that came after it. He had decided to prioritise doing something at once.

But there is no need for us to do that. Often we treat stimulus and response like they are some variety of German complex noun:

We treat stimulus and response like a German complex noun - no gap between the words

That’s our decision. There is no reason why that should be the case: there is no actual causal link between a stimulus and our response to it. We can, in fact, choose to give ourselves time to respond, in order that we can also choose the manner of our response. Alexander came up with the following formulation. It functions as a useful tool in training oneself out of responding instantly to stimuli:

...to make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.[2]

We can use this formulation ourselves. When we receive a stimulus – whether to speak or answer a phone or anything else – we can make the experience of receiving that stimulus and refusing to do anything immediately in response. That gives us the opportunity to choose the manner or our response. As Stephen Covey points out, we can even choose whether we wish to respond at all![3]

So no matter what the next couple of weeks hold for any of us, we can receive a stimulus, make an experience of refusing to do anything immediately in response, and then choose whether we do what we originally intended, or something else we’ve planned, or nothing at all. And that is true freedom: knowing that we always hold the key to our our reactions.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, pp.40-41.

[2] ibid., p.40.

[3] Covey, S, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Melbourne, Business Library, 1989, p.69.

The power of mental practice

Rodin’s The Thinker indulging in some mental practice

Over the past few weeks I’ve written about FM Alexander’s approach to planning an activity: setting a goal, analysing conditions present, reasoning out a means, and putting the means into action. FM’s experience was that he needed to find a new protocol for speaking that he could use to replace his unhelpful instinctive protocol. When he tried to put it into action, however, he found he had two problems: he found it difficult to stop the old unhelpful protocol from jumping ahead of his new protocol; and he realised that one of the reasons this might be happening was that the old protocol had been well rehearsed while the new one had barely been rehearsed at all. How to solve these problems?!

Next week I’ll discuss Alexander’s approach for preventing the near instantaneous application of the old unhelpful protocol. This week I want to address the issue of learning the new plan. Alexander’s solution? Mental practice.

Mental practice defined by Alexander

“I therefore decided to confine my work to giving myself the directions for the new ‘means-whereby’, instead of actually trying to ‘do’ them or to relate them to the ‘end’ of speaking. I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months, without attempting to ‘do’ them…” [1]

To Alexander, the key component of this stage of his practice was that he was ‘giving directions’ without attempting to do them. He wasn’t speaking. He stood in front of the mirror and observed himself, but did not speak. There was a lot of work going on, but all of it was mental!

So how should we adapt mental practice for our purposes?

  • Mental practice is away from the activity – away from the instrument or the sports equipment;
  • Mental practice involves going through the ‘directions’ or steps in your protocol;
  • You do it regularly and often, just like practice on the instrument.

How do I know I’m doing it correctly?

I think it’s important to point out that, just as there isn’t really one right and true way of sitting, there almost certainly isn’t any one right and true way to do mental practice. Exactly what you do, just as with sitting, is likely to be entirely contextual. To take a musical example, at the beginning of learning a piece you are likely to be looking at specific bars and running through them in your mind to make sure you remember the correct fingerings or articulation. Towards performance day, however, you are likely to be visualising standing backstage in your performance outfit, waiting to go on, walking out, and beginning to play the notes.

It’s also important to remember that mental practice is a skill that you need to learn, just as (physical) music practice is a skill. Initially, you may find that you struggle to maintain your focus on your practice for very long. If you keep trying, however, you will find that this kind of Alexandrian thinking becomes easier to sustain, and time will pass without you noticing!

The power of mental practice: a story.

 A few years ago I worked with a musician who had injured themselves, and was using a combination of physiotherapy to deal with the injury and Alexander Technique to deal with the muscular tension that had helped to create it. The musician was in the final year of their degree, but at the beginning of the year could only play for a few minutes without intense pain. But they needed to learn the repertoire for their final recital.

Our solution? Mental practice. I worked with them to improve their mental practice skills; the musician would do only a few minutes of practice on the instrument a very few times a day, but would supplement this with plenty of mental practice and score study.

The outcome? The musician did well in their final recital and got their degree.

Mental practice works. It gives you the experience and grounding in your new protocol that it won’t feel totally unfamiliar in comparison to your old unhelpful way of going about things. Give it a go.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.41.
Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1513092

Four steps to positive change: 4. Put the plan into action

Put your plan into action with the determination carved into this statue of runner Shirley Strickland.

In his chapter Evolution of a Technique, FM Alexander gave us a simple set of instructions for how to develop a new plan for activity that we can use to replace our usual habitual way of going about  things. In this final instalment of a 4 part blog series, I want to examine another of the steps to positive change that form Alexander’s method of reasoning our way to a better use of ourselves. Today, I’m going to show you how to reason your way out of trouble and into a better use of yourself.

Here is the section of Evolution of a Technique that we are going to cover over the next few weeks:

In the work that followed I came to see that to get a direction of my use which would ensure this satisfactory reaction, I must cease to rely upon the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employ my reasoning processes, in order

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.[1]

Put the plan into action.

You’ve defined your goal, and done your observation and analysis. You have spent time reasoning out the best way of getting to your goal. So what next?

Obviously, if one has spent all that time and attention creating a decent plan, one is going to use it! But there are some points I want to make about how to do so most effectively.

Do just the plan – no extras at the last minute

I’ll talk more about the technical aspects of making sure that you actually do what you intended in future posts. For now, though, it is enough to remember just how tempting it is to go ‘off piste’. 

I have a very clear memory of being in the debating club at school, and being picked for an important competition at another school. I carefully planned my speech in the debate, and wrote it out on little cards. When I stood up to speak, I recall midway through I looked down at my notes, and decided the sentence I was about to say was poorly constructed, and decided to alter it on the fly. Unfortunately, I incorporated part of the next point I was going to make; I stumbled and ran to a stop as I tried to recover my thread of argument. My desire to improvise had not been a great thing to indulge!

Complete commitment, total detachment

‘Complete commitment, total detachment’ is a phrase I’ve shared on the blog before, and one I frequently use with my students. It’s a shorthand for the following:

  • Complete commitment to the process
  • Total detachment from the outcome

We covered complete commitment to the process earlier – don’t be tempted to go ‘off piste’. But what about total detachment from the outcome? What does that mean?

Elsewhere in The Use of the Self Alexander comments that the average person (that’s probably you and me!) is accustomed to “work directly for [their] ends on the ‘trial and error’ plan without giving due consideration to the means whereby those ends should be gained.”[2] It’s as if we are so fixated on the goal we want to achieve that we don’t pay attention to the way we get there. But if we don’t pay attention to the process, anything could happen – and probably will. If we want to achieve our goals efficiently and sustainably, paying attention to the process is not just desirable, but essential. And if we have worked hard on creating a plan that achieves our goals, then we no longer even need to think about the goal; if we just put our plan into action, then achieving the goal is inevitable anyway![3]

Don’t evaluate as you gO!


When you put your plan into action, it’s tempting to try and check your progress mid-process. Don’t – it’s a trap! If you are carrying out a new plan that is contrary to your usual way of going about things, you will want to give your new plan your full attention. You will need to stay with present moment concerns.

As soon as you begin to evaluate your progress, you are placing your attention on the outcome of the process; you are looking at outputs. This is quite simply different to paying attention to the process as it happens. And if, as we discussed in the last point, success is inevitable anyway, why bother evaluating? There will be time enough for that once you’re done!

I hope that this short series on Alexander’s concept of planning has been useful, and that you have a bit more knowledge about how to go about it more efficiently and with a better chance of success. Learning to take your goals seriously, to analyse, make a detailed and realistic plan and then faithfully put the plan into action isn’t all of the Alexander Technique, but it’s a key component, and it makes life a lot simpler. 

Have fun with your planning!

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

[2] ibid., p.57.

[3 Alexander, F.M., Universal Constant in Living, NY IRDEAT 1997, p.587.

Image of statue of Shirley Strickland by By Melburnian – Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1259804

Four Steps to Positive Change: 3. Reason your way out of trouble

When you reason your way through trouble you can feel like this lightbulb - switched on!

In his chapter Evolution of a Technique, FM Alexander gave us a simple set of instructions for how to develop a new plan for activity that we can use to replace our usual habitual way of going about  things. In this 3rd instalment of a 4 part blog series, I want to examine another of the steps to positive change that form Alexander’s method of reasoning our way to a better use of ourselves. Today, I’m going to show you how to reason your way out of trouble and into a better use of yourself.

Here is the section of Evolution of a Technique that we are going to cover over the next few weeks:

In the work that followed I came to see that to get a direction of my use which would ensure this satisfactory reaction, I must cease to rely upon the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employ my reasoning processes, in order

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.[1]

Reason out a means

FM Alexander had a problem. He wanted to stop pulling his head back when he went to recite, because it was creating a cascade of physical movements that led to vocal hoarseness. He had worked out a goal – to speak without hoarseness – and analysed carefully what he habitually did. Now he needed to work out exactly what he was going to do as a replacement for his old way of doing things.

But what does this mean? And what sorts of things might we want to include in a plan for an activity? In the paragraphs below I give a few ideas for the sorts of things that you might want to include in any reasoning that you do.

What you do with your head is important

FM found that he was pulling his head back, and that this movement was preparatory to pretty much everything that he did. Not only that, but it was the starting movement of the chain of physical tensions that culminated in his vocal hoarseness.[2] When he prevented the misuse of his head in relation with his body, the other physical tensions were prevented indirectly, and his hoarseness improved.

What Alexander found, he said, led him to the “discovery of the primary control of the working of all the mechanisms of the human body” – he discovered that what a person does with their head in relation with their body has a controlling or guiding effect on all other movement.[3] In other words, thinking about what you are doing with your head is really very important!

Keep it practical: what joints do you need to use to complete the activity efficiently and simply?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like working any harder than I absolutely need to! This means that I aim for efficiency. One of the great ways to ensure efficiency in movement is to move only at the joints that you need to in order to complete the activity you wish to undertake.

So take a look at a skeleton. Take a look at an anatomy book; download one of the fantastic apps that are now available for phones and tablets that show you bones and muscles. Once you are armed with knowledge, you can make more reasoned choices about which joints are sensible ones to use for the activity you are planning.

Keep it general 

It may sound like I am contradicting myself, but you also want to ensure that you don’t go into too much detail. You don’t need to plan out exactly which muscles you are going to use – you don’t need to work out primary movers, secondary movers, stabilising muscles… You don’t need to plan exactly how much force you are going to use.[4] That’s a job for the motor centres of your brain, not your reasoning centres. Use your reason; have a concept, and then let your brain take care of the details.

Remember context

Sitting to standing is very different depending on context: a sofa is different to a dining chair, and both are very different to a bus seat! Once you have, for example, a basic idea of moving at the hips, knees and ankles, you can adjust this basic concept depending on the specific context in which you find yourself.

FM Alexander had a high opinion of reasoning. It was so great, indeed, that he called it humanity’s supreme inheritance.[5] If FM thought it was so vitally important, perhaps we should value it more, too. We really can reason our way out of trouble, if we just give ourselves the opportunity.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

[2] ibid., p.27.

[3] ibid., p.28.

[4] Though it is worth holding in mind the idea that it may be less force than you are used to using!

[5] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed., NY 1997, p. 17.

By Cpt.karl – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58389395

Four steps to positive change: 2. Analyse conditions present

In his chapter Evolution of a Technique, FM Alexander gave us a simple set of instructions for how to develop a new plan for activity that we can use to replace our usual habitual way of going about  things. In this 2nd instalment of a 4 part blog series, I want to examine another of the steps to positive change that form Alexander’s method of reasoning our way to a better use of ourselves. Today, we are going to analyse conditions present.

Here is the section of Evolution of a Technique that we are going to cover over the next few weeks:

In the work that followed I came to see that to get a direction of my use which would ensure this satisfactory reaction, I must cease to rely upon the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employ my reasoning processes, in order

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.[1]

Why analyse conditions present?

Having defined a goal, one needs to start creating a path towards it. But in order to do that, you have to know – or at least have a glimmer of an idea – of your starting point. If we extend the ‘path’ analogy for a moment: in order to get to a destination, I have to plane a route. And that is a whole lot easier if I know where I am. I am sure pretty much everyone has been in the situation of being in a new city and trying to get to a particular tourist destination, and having trouble working out exactly where you are right this minute!

In order to be able to speak without hoarseness, Alexander needed to analyse what he was doing with his vocal (and other) mechanisms. He needed to make observations of what was happening now.

Internal and external

So if you wanted to, for example, improve your golf swing, you would need to analyse what you are doing with your body currently as you perform that action. You would need to think about muscles and joints you are using, and the sequence in which they are used.

However, don’t leave your analysis there! Also think about the external situation. Again, using the golfing analogy: look at the club you are using; the ball; the ground contours; the wind direction and strength. All of these will affect your golf swing and exactly how you would want to use it at that moment.

Analyse conditions present, not conditions past, or conditions future!

You’ll notice that I am emphasising analysing the conditions at the present moment. I am doing this for very good reasons.

First of all, if you want to improve your golf swing, part of the process of improvement is knowing that the swing will need to change according to the external conditions (like the ground and wind), and exactly what constitutes a good stroke at that particular moment. The idea of a ‘good’ golf swing is very context-dependent. (Or so my golfing students tell me…) I am certain that this is true for a huge number of other activities, too.

Second, I want you to avoid analysing conditions past or future. Sometimes in lessons a student will demonstrate an activity they want to improve – singing, for example – and when I ask what they noticed, they will say something like: “I’m not sure. But I probably pulled my head back.”

This student is assuming, for whatever reason, that they are doing the thing that they used to do when they first started lessons. They are giving me an analysis of conditions past, not what actually just happened. And when they do this, their analysis is almost always quite negative!

I also sometimes have students who won’t tell me what they just observed, but rather, tell me what they hope to have happen. This is analysing conditions future. This is just as useless to our process of path-building as analysing conditions past. To go back to the path-finding analogy; this is equivalent to spending your time looking at a map and imagining what the tourist destination will be like once you’re there. It’s fun, but it doesn’t give you any information about where you are starting from.

Analyse conditions present to gain evidence

Once you’ve done an analysis of conditions present, you have evidence about what is going on. You will have a good understanding of the particular context that is facing you at the present moment. From this, you will have a much clearer idea of what things you will need to change in order to achieve your goal.

Pretty much everyone has heard the maxim that knowledge is power. I would add that knowledge is clarity. Once you have evidence, you are no longer guessing. You are in the best position to make reasoned change – and that’s a powerful place to be.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

photograph of Tiger Woods by U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Brien Aho.

Four steps to positive change: 1. Have a goal

To have a goal is like being at the bottom of this staircase in Verona: you know where you are going!

If you’re reading this post, I am guessing that you are interested in making positive changes in your life. And whether you are a regular reader or not, I am sure you would appreciate being given a blueprint for how to structure your thinking so that it becomes easier to design the most effective protocols you can. And no matter what the activity, if you can design an effective protocol, you are a good way towards making a positive change to your life.

In his chapter Evolution of a Technique, FM Alexander gave us a simple set of instructions for how to develop a new plan for activity that we can use to replace our usual habitual way of going about  things. In this and the next three blogs, I want to examine the steps to positive change that form Alexander’s method of reasoning our way to a better use of ourselves.

Here is the section of Evolution of a Technique that we are going to cover over the next few weeks:

In the work that followed I came to see that to get a direction of my use which would ensure this satisfactory reaction, I must cease to rely upon the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employ my reasoning processes, in order

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.[1]

The zero step

The first of the steps to positive change actually isn’t even mentioned by Alexander at all! Well, not overtly, at least. His assumption of this step was so total, and its existence in Evolution of a Technique so all-encompassing, that it doesn’t appear as a step at all. But if there is one thing we need to think about before making any changes at all, it is this:

What is it that we want to achieve?

We need to have a goal; it is important that we know what we are doing and why.

FM’s goal

We can see FM’s goal more clearly if we go back to the beginning of Evolution of a Technique and look at why he started his investigations into his vocal mechanism. He experienced vocal hoarseness when reciting which “from time to time culminated in a complete loss of voice.” [2]

When I talk about this in classes I will often use the joke that this was very disturbing to FM, because Neighbours hadn’t been invented yet! What I mean, of course, is that in 1890s Melbourne he would not have been able to make a living as an actor without working on a stage; he needed to be able to speak and recite at volume (projection). He needed a functional voice.

In other words, if we were to formalise his goal, it would have been something like this:

To be able to recite (speak onstage) for a full show without hoarseness.

We could argue (as I do sometimes in class) that later FM adds a goal to his investigations, involving discovering the nature of how we direct ourselves in activity. But he never loses his focus on having a reliable and functional vocal mechanism.

What is your goal?

So today I invite you to ask yourself what your goal is. What are you investigating? What is it that you want to improve? 

Once you have a goal you will have a direction of travel. You will have clues about what you want to analyse, and a clear path for the reasoning that will follow.

What is it that you want to achieve?

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

[2] ibid., p.24.

Photograph of Verona street by Jennifer Mackerras.

Do we have limitless potential?

Willpower on the left, and Indistractable on the right: ego depletion n one side, and limitless willpower on the other!

I’ve been doing a lot of commuting lately, and have been catching up on some reading for research and CPD (continuing professional development). One of the books I have been reading has caused me to ponder the question: do we have limits to what we can achieve, or do we have limitless potential?

This is an important idea. Is there a ceiling on what we can achieve in any activity? If so, where is it, and how do we know when we’ve reached it?

I don’t know about you, but I have often had the experience – particularly when working on physical tasks like learning a new piece of music or a new stroke in tennis – where I have felt as though I am putting in time for limited returns. I work on the same musical passage each day for a number of days, but it does seem to get very much better. Have I reached my ceiling for improvement, or have I reached a temporary plateau? Should I persist in my efforts to improve, and if so, for how long?

Limitless potential vs ego depletion

The book I have been reading is Indistractable by Nir Eyal; its task is to give the reader a methodology for avoiding distraction in order to improve attentiveness and so enable better work and more enjoyable leisure time. As part of his argument that part of avoiding distraction is dealing with internal triggers, he discusses the concept of willpower. Eyal refers back to research done by Roy Baumeister into the concept of ego depletion: the idea that we only have a certain amount of willpower available to us each day, and that we can use it up over the course of a day. To quote from the bestselling book Baumeister co-wrote with John Tierney, ego depletion describes

people’s diminished capacity to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions. People can sometimes overcome mental fatigue, but Baumeister found that if they had used up energy by exerting willpower (or by making decisions, another form of ego depletion…), they would eventually succumb. [1]

In this conception, willpower is a finite human resource. Use it up refusing to eat the biscuits in the office kitchen all day, and you’ll have no energy left to fight the desire for the ice cream in the freezer when you get home!

But is this true? 

In his book Nir Eyal summarises a number of studies (including a meta-analysis of 200 other papers) that seem to discredit the idea of ego depletion. My favourite involves work done by Carol Dweck, creator of the ‘growth mindset’ hypothesis. She found that signs of ego depletion only occurred in test subjects who believed that willpower was a limited resource!

Many people still promote the idea of ego depletion, perhaps because they are unaware of the evidence that exists to the contrary. But if Dweck’s conclusions are correct, then perpetuating the idea is doing real harm. If ego depletion is essentially caused by self-defeating thoughts and not by any biological limitation, then the idea makes us less likely to accomplish our goals by providing a rationale to quit when we could otherwise persist. [2]

According to this conception, willpower isn’t a finite resource. We can choose to persist. But if this is true of willpower, what other concepts could also be as close to infinite as we dare to imagine? Our attention? Our mental discipline? Our capacity for success?

Alexander’s ideas of human capacity

When I read the passage about willpower and I thought about the possibility of choosing to persist, it brought to mind a passage from FM Alexander’s first book Man’s Supreme Inheritance. Alexander was intimately concerned with education and the prevention of psychophysical difficulties in children. Thinking about babies in particular, he wrote:

the child’s potentialities lie hidden in the mysterious groupings and arrangement of its cells and tissues; hidden beyond the reach of analysis … even at birth it is differentiated from other children; our limits may be wide but they are fixed. Within these limits, however, our capacity for good and evil is very great.[3]

Alexander is rightly pointing out that at a genetic level we might not be able to do ANYTHING – there are going to be limits. On the other hand, when a baby is born we have no idea what those limits are. I clearly remember holding my son when he was newborn, and being awestruck by the fact that I had literally no idea of what he might accomplish in the future; to all intents and purposes, his potential was limitless. [4]

As we get older we make choices about what we want to do and what we don’t. We make decisions about what we can do and what we believe we can’t. But what if we aren’t actually that different to the newborn in our potential? Obviously our brain structures are a bit different, and we may have issues with tissue repair through ageing, but what if the physiological limits of what most of us can achieve are far, far greater than the limits we place on ourselves?

Imagine what you could achieve if you had limitless potential. Imagine the levels of attention, focus and discipline you could access. Imagine the fun you could have!

Of course, I might be wrong. Our potential might be more finite than our willpower has turned out to be. But wouldn’t it be fun try holding the opposing point of view to test it out?

[1] Baumeister, R.F. & Tierney, J., Willpower, London, Allen Lane, 2012, p.28.

[2] Eyal, N. & Li, J., Indistractable, London, Bloomsbury, 2019, p.51.

[3] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, pp.69-70. 

[4] And neurological research seems to be confirming this. I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and it contains a section on this topic.

The key to being more efficient is not what you think

Applauding hands: a performer's reward for being more efficient?

It is rare that I come across someone who doesn’t want to be more efficient – or just plain better – at some aspect of their lives. Most of us have something that we want to improve. Very often we’ve read books, been to workshops, paid for courses, but still we don’t improve in the way we want. Sometimes we’ve worked really hard, practised regularly, and what we want still seems out of reach. What’s wrong with us? Why can’t we get over ourselves and be more efficient? And why do some people actually manage it (and make the rest of us feel a bit envious)?

I was reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, and he articulates something in a business context that has clear parallels to our experience of wanting to be better in other areas of our lives. Newport outlines what he calls The Principle of Least Resistance:

The Principle of Least Resistance: in a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviours to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviours that are easiest in the moment.[1]

In other words, it becomes easier to try for ‘inbox zero’ than it is to write an article or (autobiographical detail coming up) finish the marketing strategy that is so needed. Clearing your email has an immediate reward, whereas finishing the article or the marketing strategy don’t have any immediate thrill or tangible payoff – even if they are far more beneficial in the long term.

Least Resistance looks more efficient

But I think Newport’s Principle of Least Resistance applies in many other contexts, too:

  • I am really struggling with my bowing arm in this passage. I need to learn the rep. I’ll muscle through.
  • I’m struggling with the breathing in this tricky passage in the Schubert. I have this problem other places too. But I need to have this performance ready for next week. I’ll worry about my breathing later.
  • My mouse hand hurts. I have to get this report finished. My sore hand can wait till I’m done.

How often have you found yourself taking a path of least resistance in order to get the short term goal, but at the expense of your own wellbeing? We find ourselves doing the thing that seems easiest in the moment, and rarely stop to consider that if we spent some time thinking about a more appropriate response, things would go better in the long run. Frank Pierce Jones quotes FM Alexander as saying:

You are worse off than before if, in the process of achieving your goal, you destroy the integrity of your organism.[2]

If we are honest with ourselves, even as we make the choice of least resistance, we know that we aren’t really helping ourselves. But if you’re anything like me, you rationalise the short term thinking with a promise to be more strategic and properly think about things once this immediate crisis situation is over. And then the next crisis situation comes along!

The Principle of Least Resistance … supports work cultures that save us from the short-term discomfort of concentration and planning, at the expense of long-term satisfaction and the production of real value.[3]

Alexander Technique as the key to being more efficient.

The reason why Alexander Technique is both so powerful and so troubling is that one could see it as a general antidote to the Principle of Least Resistance as described by Newport. The fundamental idea of Alexander’s work is this:

The centre and backbone of my theory and practice, upon which I feel that I cannot insist too strongly, is that THE CONSCIOUS MIND MUST BE QUICKENED.[4]

As I have discussed elsewhere, Alexander wants us to develop the mental discipline that will enable us to change the way we think, in order that we can also change the way we move. And in order to do this, we have to allow ourselves the time and routine to be able to practise and hone our mental discipline.

This is the difficulty, of course. As Newport observes, it is far easier to keep achieving small goals and looking busy (and feeling busy and productive) than it is to stop and look for a better solution. This is perhaps why the majority of the population yearn for improvement, but don’t take the steps to achieve it. Our culture rewards looking busy, and there’s plenty of studies from Behavioural Economics that demonstrate that as a species we aren’t very good at giving up short term benefits for long term rewards.[5]

The other, more practical, reason why people don’t practise their mental discipline is that they haven’t made space for it in their lives. As anyone who has tried to learn a new skill knows, the key to consistent improvement is to find time to practise regularly.

Being more efficient requires us to stop and change

So if we want to develop the mental discipline to actually change our thinking and our movement, there are two key steps:

  1. Make a commitment to stop prioritising short term goals
  2. Make practical changes to our schedules and routines to make space for regular practice and everything else that promotes mental change.

Cal Newport’s book is full of practical ideas for changing routines and setting up behaviours so that ‘deep work’ is given a priority, and I recommend reading it. But this is an Alexander Technique blog, and I’m going to remind you of the processes that Alexander wanted us to incorporate:

  • Analyse the conditions present.
  • Reason out a means … whereby a better use could be brought about
  • Make the experience of receiving a stimulus to do the old way, and refuse to do anything immediately in response
  • Mental practice: give directions without attempting to do them
  • Trust in your reasoning processes
  • Make mistakes
  • Rest, reflect and evaluate
  • Keep on deciding to not do things in the old way.[6]

If you want to be more efficient, you can’t do the same things in the same old way any more. Stop. Find a space in your day – a couple of minutes will do. Decide to work on the thing you want to improve. Pick one of these processes, and find a way to work on it, just for a couple of minutes. At first you may find it hard; after a few days or weeks, you may find it hard to stop! And that’s when you know you’re making real progress.

[1] Newport, C., Deep Work, London, Piatkus, 2016, p.58.

[2] Jones, F.P., Freedom to Change, Mouritz, p.4.

[3] Newport, op.cit., p.60.

[4]Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.36.

[5] If you’d like more information on this, Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational would be a great place to start.

[6] You can find all of these, either directly or by inference, in Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, pp.39-48.

Photograph by Niklas Bildhauer, Germany. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]