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 (]