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Preparing for Flow (with Micro-goals!)

Posted by Anna | Sep 26, 2020

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When I was a kid, my best mate wanted to be an actor.

No matter how many times I watched her imagine her Oscar speech, it didn’t bring her closer to her dream.

But at some point, Bronagh started to use her imagination differently.

It was little things:

  • How does Helen Mirren get that fire in her eyes?
  • Where does Judi Dench find power in her voice like that?
  • What happens if I show one expression on my face, and something different in my words?

She started to play with the details.

And to my eyes, that's when her talent really started to bloom.

It grew. And grew.

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Till we arrive at today, when directors pick Bronagh for the most complex, tear-jerking roles.

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And honestly, I can’t sit through a single scene without getting a big lump in my throat.

So, what’s Bronagh’s creative secret?

How did she get so good, so fast?

You'll have to ask her to know for sure. 😊

But to my mind, from the outside looking in, the answer seems to lie in perseverance, and a surprising flow trigger that can help all of us to boost our practice.

Drum roll, please! This week’s flow trigger is:

Micro-goals!

I promise, I’ll explain this in a second! 😊 But first, let’s rewind a moment...

You’ll remember from last week that flow refers to that magical feeling when we perform at our best.

It’s often studied by psychologists. And it's your best bet when it comes to boosting practice:

  • Time and doubt disappears
  • Energy skyrockets
  • You’re totally focused
  • You feel “in the zone”

Getting into flow is something top performers like Bronagh learn to master because they know it’s a high road to finding "stage presence” and nailing emotion in a scene.

Like this one:

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But getting there is no easy feat!

Even for Bronagh, finding flow doesn't come at the drop of a hat. 

Her best bet has got to be finding focus. That’s the ultimate doorway to flow.

So, of course, nothing could be more important than relaxing into the present - not thinking of Oscar speech glory, fears of failure, or anything outside that moment of character.

And that’s where the power of micro-goals comes in.

Let’s switch to an example from yoga (to help us understand):

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One reason yoga teachers are amazing is because they help us break down our practice into micro-goals.

Say I want to learn a handstand. It’s tempting to think:

“What’s my goal? Well, I want to feel like a superhero when I nail this handstand and post the picture on Insta.”

This goal might be motivating - which is crucial, when I’m gearing up for practice!

But during practice, a goal like that would pull my mind into the future.

During practice, I want detailed, present-moment goals that drive me into present-moment awareness. Because, with awareness in the present, I know I’ll stand a chance of finding that springboard into flow!

So, a great teacher will help me uncover micro-goals.

Like so:

  • Stretch your fingers wide apart
  • Keep awareness inside hands (to help with your balance!)
  • Shoulders pulled away from ears
  • Now, can your hips get parallel to shoulders?
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Having a clear goal for technique in each moment keeps me focused. Senses zoom into the present, listening for feedback:

  • What's actually happening?
  • How does reality compare with my tiny goal for right now?
  • What needs adjusting?
  • And what will it take to bridge the gap?

Because it’s only with our awareness held steady, inside that gap of “not knowing”, that flow, insight and creativity can get their big chance to emerge. 

Let’s return to Bronagh’s example (to see micro-goals from a different angle):

Even after all these years, when Bronagh gets a new script, she still breaks it down.

It’s what pros do.

Her technique’s internalised by now. So the micro-goals she sets are a bit different. She’s interested in things like:

  • Moments of vulnerability
  • Emotional turning points
  • Internal conflict in a character

She scribbles ideas for these in the margins of her script.

Because once a person gets clear about their intentions, that’s when something magical can happen.

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Somehow, when the brain has a clear micro-goal in each moment, when all the thinking's done up-front, it gives our mind permission to let go.

It’s almost as if our brain says:

“I trust you. You’ve done all the thought-work necessary for this. I feel safe. We know what we’re doing (so far as is possible). And, more important, we know where the gaps are. We know the limits of ideas-based knowledge here. And maybe, that sorta knowledge isn’t gonna be enough! So now, let’s power down the thinking mind, and just go for it. Let’s see what we can learn from experience alone!”

And that’s when the magic does happen.

In deepest flow, the pre-frontal cortex (our thinking centre) actually goes dim. So all the intuitive data from our unconscious begins to shine forth more brightly.

It’s a bit like the way the stars get brighter in our awareness, during a blackout, when light pollution dims.

For an actor, notes on the script cease to matter, and they can be in the moment, responding to the audience, and the actors on set.

For a writer, their character can seem to defy the plot outline, and "take on a life of their own."

And for a yoga practitioner, that’s when we learn something intuitive from inside our practice - “aha, it’s like this.” We learn something beyond micro-goals, or anything our teacher could've put into words.

Our mind reaches inside that moment of practice, inside that gap of “not knowing”, and leaps.

It makes all the difference.

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Bronagh taught me that perseverance and preparation, through micro-goals, drives us into the present.

But once we’re there, if we’re lucky, we can become like a jazz performer who’s able to improvise, or an actor able to let go into the moment, and become one with the role.

Committing to a lifelong practice is challenging for everybody. But making space for these beautiful, intuitive moments to emerge? That’s everything!

Moments like these matter. We have to fight for them, sure. But in turn, they can give us the motivation we need to keep showing up, to do what it takes to persevere in our practice. And realise a dream.

That's what Bronagh did. 🙂

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To learn more about Bronagh Waugh, check out her social media:

Instagram: @bronaghwaugh  Twitter: @bronaghwaugh


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