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.

Why sitting up straight could be bad for your posture


Last week I wrote a post about Professor Roy Baumeister‘s appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, talking about willpower. Prof Baumeister, if you recall, advocates us spending time each day reminding ourselves to sit or stand up straight. He has evidence to suggest that spending time exercising willpower over something like ‘posture’ will improve our self-control in other areas.

This week I want to talk about why Prof Baumeister’s advice may help your willpower, but may in the end do you more harm than good. Quite simply, today I am going to tell you why it could be positively harmful to ‘sit up straight.’


People and their people-ness*

FM Alexander wrote in his final book about how each one of us has a psycho-physical unity equipped with “marvellous mechanisms” – that is, we all have a body (and mind), and all work pretty similarly. But each of us chooses how we use this marvellous mechanism we have been given. This is our manner of use. And our manner of use of ourselves can influence our general functioning for ill or for good.**

In other words, we each use our psycho-physical unity uniquely, according to our ideas, beliefs and preconceptions. We each have a me-nes that determines the effectiveness (or not) of our general functioning.

Alexander believed, I suspect with some justification, that “the great majority of civilized people have come to use themselves in such a way that in everything they are doing they are constantly interfering” with the mechanisms that determine the standard of their general functioning.*** Their me-ness gets in their own way.

This means that if we are asked to do an exercise designed to improve our standard of functioning, we will do it through the filter of our me-ness – the very me-ness that Alexander says got us into trouble in the first place.


Me-ness says ‘sit up straight’

Sitting up ‘straight’ is a classic example pf this problem. When we try to ‘sit up straight’, we do this through the filter of our me-ness. Probably without knowing it, we have a whole catalogue of beliefs and preconceptions of what this act will involve. And the likelihood is that most of those preconceptions will be wrong and unhelpful. They will, on evidence from my classes, involve excess tension (frequently of the muscles of the mid- and lower back) and arching of the spine, the onset of muscle fatigue and sometimes even outright discomfort.

Imagine what would happen if you did that every day, as Prof Baumeister suggests, whenever you think of it?


Don’t sit up straight!

So don’t try to ‘sit up straight’. Not, that is, until you’ve had a good think about what that might involve. You could think about (or even research) the location of your hip joints. You could think about which muscles actually need to be involved in sitting (fewer than you’d think). You could think about the part the spine plays in keeping you upright, and what shape it is.

If you think of these things, you won’t be just trotting out your old me-ness.  You’ll be adventuring into the unknown, and exercising that wonderful gift that Alexander said was the secret of our ability to govern the circumstances of our lives – our reasoning intelligence.****


* With a nod to Prof DF Kennedy of Bristol University for this wonderful phrase
** FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in the Irdeat Complete Edition, pp.523-4.
*** ibid., p.526.
**** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.17.

Image by Stuart Miles,


‘Sit Up Straight!’ – Does Alexander Technique help with self-control?


Is there a link between self control and the Alexander Technique?

On Monday morning on BBC Radio 4, the presenters of the Today programme interviewed Professor Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength. In the interview, he suggested that “self control is really the best thing you can give your chilrdren,” and gave an example of a simple way to improve one’s willpower as an adult.

“The good news about self control is that it’s never too late. We’ve done studies even with adults, showing that a couple of weeks of training and practice, even things like working on your posture, can strengthen your willpower … The first study we did, we told people, ‘Whenever you think about it, sit up straight, stand up straight.’ The thing about willpower is that if you strengthen it in one sphere makes you better at everything else.” *

So… If you tell people to sit up straight or stand up straight, their self control improves. And if their self control improves, the evidence is that they become more successful and better liked. So far, so good…

I have a couple of things I’d like to talk about off the back of this interview:
1. How the Alexander Technique can explain the basis behind the positive changes Baumeister witnessed;
2. Why it is that Baumeister’s approach may end up doing more harm than good.
I will cover point 2 next week.


Alexander on habits and self control

FM Alexander stated all the way through his books that he believed that the troubles people experienced (with things like bad habits) were the result of what he called subconscious control – depending upon instinct and feeling for guidance, “so that today man walks, talks sits, stands, performs in fact the innumerable mechanical acts of daily life without giving a thought to the psychical and physical processes involved.” **

Alexander wanted us to move beyond this subconscious guidance, and to enliven our reasoning faculties. “For in the mind of man lies the secret of his ability to resist, to conquer, and finally to govern the circumstance of his life…” ***

So how do we bring to life our reasoning faculties? Well, Alexander said we could change to something more beneficial “if once we can clear away that first impeding habit of thought which stands between us and conscious control.” ****

In other words, if we make an effort to change the way we think, then we start to change not just towards more beneficial physical conditions, but more beneficial mental ones too. We will  begin to develop a reasoning facility that will actually help us to keep changing and improving. As Alexander says:

For when real conscious control has been obtained  habit need never become fixed. It is not truly a habit at all, but an order or series of orders given to the subordinte controls of the body…”

And interestingly, this sounds errily similar to  statement made by reviewer Jamie Holmes in his assessment of Baumeister’s book: “One implication is already apparent.Since repeated behaviors eventually turn into habits, improving willpower long term requires a unique strategy—a habit of changing habits, of continually expanding our zones of comfort.”

The way forward?

All of this so far, I fear, may have sounded a bit dry. But it is actually really important. Alexander is telling us that nothing is fixed.

Let me repeat that. Nothing is fixed.

If we begin to use our brains and take a good hard look at the things we do, we can make beneficial changes. If you habitually slump, for example, you can reason out where you would bend to sit if not slumping. You can reason out where the muscles are that do the job of bending your legs. You can find out what a curvy shape the spine actually has. You can think about whether different chairs would need different approaches to sitting. these are just some of the questions you could ask yourself.

You can do all these things. You are resourceful, intelligent, and determined. You have the power to change for the better. So what are you going to start to change today?


*Prof Baumeister, transcribed from the BBC interview. The link is in the text above.
**FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.16.
*** ibid., p.58.
**** ibid.