Originally published at the invaluable Bar Exam Mind, posted here with permission.
As a performance coach and movement consultant, I investigate how people perform with excellence. I help people prepare for auditions, performances, exams, and dissertation defenses.
Through thousands of hours of observation and study of human coordination, voice work, performance, and research in relevant fields of stress, anatomy, physiology and neurobiology, I have developed a process that uses principles of extraordinary performance and the Alexander Technique; a simple tool that helps you restore optimal coordination and efficiently use your human design.
Here I offer a framework for performance readiness with specific techniques to help you succeed in taking the bar exam.
Learning and Memory
We are embodied thinkers. We do not “think” separately from movement.
The psycho-physical self works on both an “inside-out” as well as an “outside-in” basis. Your thoughts change your muscles, and vice versa. You can, therefore, work from both ways. If you think thoughts that spark joy, you will feel better physically. If you learn how to release superfluous muscle tension by guiding your whole system into better functioning you will improve your mood. This is key for learning and memory. Stress hormones inhibit learning and memory. Conversely, positive emotion increases LTP (long-term potentiation: a persistent strengthening of synapses based on recent patterns of activity) thereby making learning faster, deeper and easier to call up.
When we are studying or developing a skill, we sometimes mistake tightening for focus. This causes a distortion of our good, natural design, compromising our coordination, and leading to a direct decrease in effectiveness. Many of us think tightening our eyes and necks is “concentrating”. It’s not. It’s just tightening, and it’s getting in the way.
However, when we get ready to do something we care about, we experience excitement or stimulation. The decision that we want to do something has a direct physiological effect on our system, and we become primed to perform. When we combine that desire with effective coordination and cultivated skill, we achieve excellence.
Using the coordination experiments below, you can prime your whole system for optimal functioning learning, recall, and performance. You are, in essence, tuning yourself for the task at hand.
Humans are dynamic — we are designed to move. By choosing to consciously cooperate with our design, we call up optimal coordination in service of our desires. To do this, accurate information about design is essential.
The most vital information about design is that the relationship between your head and your spine is the organizing mechanism of all human movement. The joint that joins head and spine is the atlanto occipital joint — the occiput is the base of the skull and the atlas is the first cervical vertebra. This joint is located between your ears and behind the roof of your mouth.
This joint is dynamic—it’s constantly moving and you are constantly moving. By this, I mean perpetual vitality and “aliveness”, not gestural movement. Before any other movement happens in your body, the relationship between your head and spine changes. There is a delicate movement of your head on your spine to get your whole system ready to do whatever you are about to do.
Coordinate: to bring the different elements of a complex activity or organization into a relationship that will ensure efficiency or harmony. I use this word to indicate a conscious decision to ask your whole self to come into an organized and ready state.
Perform: to intentionally communicate with an audience. I use this term here to indicate that taking an exam of this nature is extraordinary and is intentional communication utilizing specific skills for a larger purpose. This also applies to the actual practice of law.
The following experiments are ways to specifically guide yourself asinto a harmonized, coordinated whole to optimize movement, learning, and recall.
Experiment #1: Overall Coordination
Cooperate with the delicate movement of your head-spine by asking for your head to coordinate so that all of you can follow to do something. Use this thought to get ready for walking, reaching for something, or speaking aloud. Before you do each task, ask for your head to move delicately so that all of you can follow so that you can walk, reach for something, or speak.
Now do the opposite: tighten your neck up a bit, stiffening the joint between head and spine. Do this in preparation for walking, reaching for something, or speaking aloud. Notice what it’s like to do that and if there are any changes in the result. (You may not notice anything—that’s OK.)
Play with going back and forth between preparing for activity with delicate movement and coordination and tightening. See what you notice about the two different intentions and how they change your results.
Experiment #2: Coordinated Breathing
Cooperate with your excellent human design by asking your head to coordinate so that your whole torso, including your lungs and ribs, can move a little as you breathing. Every joint in your body moves very delicately when you breathe. From the top rib (underneath your clavicle, or collarbone) to the bottom rib (just above your waist) all the way to your pelvic floor gently move with breathing. Let anything that wants to move do so as you breathe.
Coordinated breathing helps you think clearly and allows for appropriate responses of the whole neurobiological system, and performance readiness. It can be fast, slow, any rate, any depth or duration. Breaths are like ocean waves—varied and continuous. The key is that your breathing be coordinated through your whole body.
1. Identify the Want
Ask yourself why you want to take the bar exam.Whatever your answer, ask why again to reveal your deeper motivations. Ask why over and over until you surface a chain of wants that you can orient to a larger purpose. (If your answer has to do with material wealth, ask why you want that—security, comfort, etc. Then ask why you want to do this job to get those things.) This process will help you examine your true motivation behind this difficult endeavor.
Why do I want to take this exam?
I can qualify to do the job I want to do.
Why do I want to do that job?
I can represent those who otherwise would be under-represented
I can change the world in a particular way for the better.
Orienting to desire will help you develop resiliency and access resources and coordination you need to help you succeed.
2. Take Care of Your Whole Self
Your plans to succeed at something specific depend on your general well-being. Your prep needs to include things like movement and light exercise, eating foods that satisfy, delight and make you feel great, interaction with other people, being in nature, recreation, etc. You may already have habits around these kinds of activities or they may take time and attention to research and develop. It’s essential to actively cultivate a life that supports your overall well-being so that you have the resources and resiliency you need to do the things you care about. To have a performance day routine you like and that is reliable, you need to have developed it before then—exam day is too late. Start refining your daily routine today.
3. Use Your Imagination
The bar exam is a marathon, not a sprint. You will need ways to keep yourself engaged and enlivened to perform your best while you study and during the the exam. Using your imagination to stimulate your senses can provide essential energy and focus in preparation for and throughout the exam process.
The Yummy Inhale
Imagine something you love the smell of—cookies just out of the oven, freshly mown grass, the ocean—it must be specific. When you breathe in, breathe in that smell.
Practice doing this with your study guide in your hand, while writing essays, as a way to warm up and to cool down; it works just as well for getting ready to perform as it does for winding down to fall asleep—it just gets you in tune for whatever you’re about to do. This will help you coordinate your breathing and guide your thinking into a constructive state.
Pick a theme song you can use to get ready to perform. Something that puts a spring in your step, gives you a bit of sass or swagger, or something that gives you a giggle.
Practice hearing it in your head when you walk, write, and study.
Here are some I recommend:
Kill Bill Vol. 1 Soundtrack – Battle Without Honor or Humanity https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8P-c2k-HgRA
Stevie Wonder – I Was Made To Love Her
I Like It Like That by Pete Rodriguez
Sexual Healing by Hot 8 Brass Band
Swedish Chef – Meatballs
Before the Exam
1. Make a Plan
Using the information from the coordination experiments and some of the tools and techniques above, make a plan. Make sure your plan is constructive and built around what you want.
“What would happen if I ask my head to coordinate…
all of me can follow…
I can breathe in coordinated way…
I can use these specific techniques (list them)…
to do this thing I’m about to do?”
Organize your whole self.
Do the plan.
See how it goes.
Gather information about where you need to fill in more specifics. Particularly, note what worked and what parts you wish to keep. Reviewing what worked reinforces what you want. If something didn’t work, simply make a replacement plan and move on. Rehearsal is essential in helping you revise your plan to get one that works.
Test your plans in different settings.
Make an outline in your head while you’re in line at the grocery store. Write an essay in a loud café. Look around, smile, welcome any distractions or sensory input. You might as well—these environmental elements exist during the exam as well as the rest of your life.
Remind yourself of the reasons why you want to do what you’re about to do.
Review your plan.
Ask your whole self to coordinate for what you are about to do.
Do the plan.
*Note: You can do this process for anything you do in your life that you wish to do with quality.
Sources and recommended reading:
Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales (esp. pages 287-291)
Mindset, by Carol Dweck Ph.D
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky
Podcast, Blog and tons of resources at Bar Exam Mind