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Reflections on Alexander Technique and personal productivity

When I talk about the surprising life improvements that resulted from clearing my head of the mundane (see GTD), I mention reduced lower back pain. Some of you have asked about that, so I wanted to respond today and talk specifically about the Alexander Technique (AKA AT - Wikipedia article here), which has helped so much.

I bring this up because 1) the technique is itself helpful, 2) there are some interesting parallels with the personal productivity work I teach, and 3) my AT teacher (Missy Vineyard) has just published a terrific book on the subject that I recommend highly: How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live: Learning the Alexander Technique to Explore Your Mind-Body Connection and Achieve Self-Mastery. (The other back pain book that helped a lot was Back Sense; web site here.)

Very briefly, AT is a method to identify and replace old (and often hidden) habitual ways we use our bodies with more efficient (and less painful) ones. It's based on some insights and self-experiments performed by F. M. Alexander around the turn of the century. Especially interesting is the story of Alexander's attempts to solve a singing limitation. He first tried an approach that engineers would recognize: He noticed he moved his head a certain way every time he started to sing, a way that held back his voice. Importantly, he couldn't directly stop himself from doing it! It was a habit at the black box level of mind-body functioning that he had no insight into nor control over.

Fast-forward years ahead, and the result is a method taught one-on-one by an AT instructor that helps inhibit old patters of thinking and movement, and direct the body to more efficient ones. It's really neat.

So what's the productivity connection? Tons of things - I'll mention a few. First, both AT and personal productivity techniques like GTD or Chris Crouch's "Getting Organized" system (see my review here) involve learning significantly improved ways of self-management that aren't taught by default, but I believe are required for us to work and live more smoothly. The result is we're forced to learn ad hoc or outdated methods that don't serve us well (tightening unnecessary back muscles, or using fixed A/B/C priorities, say). Interestingly, what initially helped me was a shift in perspective that enabled the big improvement: looking at back pain as stemming from improper usage (standing, sitting, walking), not structure.

Additionally, neither are silver bullets - they involve changing old habits and adopting new behaviors, which is hard. (You might enjoy last week's post Reader question: Getting personal productivity changes to stick?, esp. the reader comments.) It's analogous to making big self-management changes via new habits, rather than gadgets or tools. The latter are tempting, and seem easy - "Just buy this cool tool and you'll work better!" - or "Just get this surgery and your pain will go away!" However, I've found the deeper, more principled changes - like any form of mastery - require thinking, practice, and time (sometimes a hard sell in today's cultural climate).

Let me finish with a few more observations.
  • Backsliding: As George Leonard writes in Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, "backsliding is a universal experience. Every one of us resists significant change, whether for the better or the worse. Our body, brain and behaviour have a built-in tendency to stay the same, within rather narrow limits, and to snap back when changed." So we have to have enough discipline and motivation to get back on the wagon. For personal productivity we get back to the basics: Collect everything back into a few fixed points, do a mind sweep, review our projects, and get our system current.
  • Static vs. dynamic: In his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink writes a static view only tells you some things; a dynamic one gives you a bigger picture of interrelated parts working together. For productivity, you can't just look at someone's desk and figure out where the problems are. Instead, you've got to look at a person using her desk.
  • Experiential AT and personal productivity systems both let you experience a more organized state, which helps by:
    • showing it's possible to work better
    • motivating you to get back into it (backsliding)
    • getting external help (seeing the need)
    In AT, we get experiences like standing up and feeling lighter, an insight of how things can be different. With my productivity work, clients experience a clear mind, and a sense of knowing everything they've committed to.
  • Brain as a tool Both approaches look at the brain as a tool, and ask: How to use it properly? There are two common methods of operation: 1) Adding tension, which tries to force relaxing and working better (the only approach people typically know), and 2) a whole new approach: inhibition + direction (doing less via new thinking). For productivity, the analogs are trying to work harder/longer/faster/etc vs. re-thinking how we work.
  • Reset button: I wonder: Does every system need a reset button? Sometimes we have to reboot our computers when they get wrapped around the axle. In AT, there are some exercises to take us out of the typical gravity orientation - e.g., laying prone. In productivity, doing a weekly review comes to mind.


Reader Comments (10)

Another good source of information is at http://alexandertechnique.com

June 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

As a musician, I am very familiar with the benefits of AT. Another direct benefit:
better posture=better projection=better presentation=better professionalism!

It isn't just for singers anymore! Thanks for this great post. :-)

June 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Rebecca: better posture=better projection=better presentation=better professionalism! Excellent point - thanks for mentioning it. Another benefit I found is just around that angle: performance. Just a few presentation tips I've picked up from AT:

o pause and reset after main points: Lets me collect my thoughts and *look* at my participants, and gives them time to mull, question, and reflect

o breathe! Lets me be present, and models good behavior for participants.

o laugh at my mistakes: Again, shows I'm human, and loosens up the feel.

And of course standing for six hours, the good new habits come quite into play.

Thanks for the comment!

June 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hi Matt,

Thank you for your recommendation of my book, How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live. The Alexander Technique is an extremely valuable tool that can help anyone learn how to fuction more efficiently and effectively in any activity, as well as to overcome pain and injury. But we still have a difficult time getting the word out to the public!

May I recommend that your readers look for a certified teacher by contacting the American Society for the Alexander Technique at: www.amsat.ws. Or they can call: 800 473 0620. AmSAT's teachers are trained to the highest international standards for teachers of the Alexander Technique.

June 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMissy Vineyard

Thanks for your comment, Missy, and for the information on qualified teachers.

June 27, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Great post Matt and I'm glad to see you're not only taking care of mind but also of body!

Have you looked into Feldenkrais Method too? He believed that certain negative emotions or memories can be 'locked' into the body through tenseness. He discovered this when people he was working on would blab out or suddenly remember repressed memories when stiff parts of their bodies were relaxed - some even started to cry!

Honestly, this is one part of personal development I'd love to get into but haven't yet; yoga, pilates, Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method all fascinate me to no end.

July 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAlvin

Hi Alvin: Thanks for writing. Some books on personal productivity do address the personal health angle; I tend to focus on the getting on top, then add the "icing" (which of course health is *not*). I see the former as a critical enabler of the latter...

Re: the [ Feldenkrais method | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feldenkrais_method ] - great story! I had a massage school teacher who was an instructor, but I don't recall much detail. I do think that habitual inefficient body usage can lead to severe pain, but I haven't explored directly the emotional side of it...

I'd love to hear more about where you take this!

July 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I suffer from a lot of back pain due to a car accident when I was a child. When it happened I was in pain for a while but after I healed I had very little trouble until I was 15 and my muscles started to develop, I started getting a lot of lower back pain and have suffered with it ever since. That is until recently when I stumbled across [ memory foam mattresses | http://www.memoryfoammattressdirect.co.uk ]. They adjust to the shape and weight of my body to support my back perfectly and let me sleep soundly. I can’t even imagine being able to sleep without my [ memory foam mattress | http://www.memoryfoammattressdirect.co.uk ] anymore!

January 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJJ

A Memory Foam Mattress can really help to allievate back pain. Well worth a try

February 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLinda

i haven't heard of this before. the first book you mentioned look interesting I'm going to check it out.

August 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBack Relief Seeker

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