Head up — Breathe — Head down.
They say that one of the most important things in swimming is learning to breathe correctly. In a sport that is ultimately based on streamlining and moving yourself as efficiently as possible, the extra drag that is created every time you take a breath can be the difference between winning and losing a close race.
However, if you don’t take breaths often enough, you won’t be feeding your muscles and body the oxygen that it requires to be as efficient as possible, in which case you may be as streamlined as possible, but your engine won’t be functioning efficiently. (Or you’ll just drown and die. And also lose the race.)
(It’s a metaphor)
When technology first started to improve our efficiency, it allowed us to shift our focus to spending more time in leisure and with friends and family (formerly only the privilege of royalty). However, as time has progressed, our focus has slowly drifted away from the notion of technology enabling us to do less, to enabling us to take on ever-increasing amounts of work.
These days, the increasing emphasis placed upon productivity is reaching epidemic levels. This is in part due to the fact that productivity and efficiency have become ingrained in the fabric of the modern working world. Operating at the subconscious level, most of us aren’t even aware of how much pressure we put on ourselves to produce.
I am by no means suggesting that being productive and efficient are bad things, all else considered equal. But when an emphasis and priority are placed on these two concepts to the exclusion or detriment of the rest of our lives, things start to fall apart. You need look no further than places like Japan’s working culture and our more demanding professional careers like lawyers and doctors to see that efficiency and productivity without balance are detrimental in the long run. (see my friend Michi’s blog for an insider’s perspective on Japanese working culture).
Recognizing the importance of balance is one thing, but understanding how to actually affect changes in your life that allow for it is another altogether. Many of us get caught up in feedback loops that lead to a lack of balance simply because we don’t know any better. All we know is that working hard got us to where we are, so presumably working even harder will take us even further.
But we know that this approach is fallacious in swimming, and so too is it in life. So what should you do? Simple:
Stop. Breathe. Repeat.
Literally. Just breathe. Don’t think about what to do next. Don’t think about what you aren’t doing while you’re taking time out to breathe. Don’t think about your deadlines, or what you need to do next, or where you’re going to be tomorrow.
Just breathe. Physically.
Put down what you’re doing, close your laptop, put your phone on vibrate, and just breathe for five minutes.
It’s not a huge commitment – but it is a commitment. Five minutes may feel like eternity to you if you’re not used to taking time out from your own productivity. Commit to those five minutes (set a timer if you need to), and turn your focus toward breathing.
You need to make sure that you’re kicking and stroking with your arms as you swim, but you also need to actively increase your drag (temporarily) so that you can take the time to provide your body with the nourishment that it requires.
Practicing What I Preach
I’ve got a lot on my plate right now. It’s easy to tangled up by all of the strings pulling at me, and if I’m not careful, I can find myself with days that are booked up from 9 in the morning to 9 at night. This does not leave much time for reflection or relaxation, let alone spending time with my wife.
I find it especially challenging to maintain balance when I have multiple projects or commitments demanding my time, as they are not always willing to play nice, and the only commonality between them is myself. This kind of situation makes breathing that much more important.
When things are really busy, it’s all I can do to try to follow my own advice. Bring up my head and breathe. Take a look around, see what the rest of the world is doing, and get a handle on what I’m currently undertaking.
The reason that granting yourself moments of breathing and clarity is so valuable is that when our heads are down, we’re unable to get a feel for what we actually have on the go. Our attention is focused on the immediate task at hand. Every intrusion feels overwhelming and like a whole new emergency requiring our attention, regardless of what the distraction may be (Eg, e-mail, a new piece of reading, a meeting request, a phone call, etc.). All we can tell is that it is not what we are currently focused on, it is another thing to be added to our plate, and good grief, don’t we have enough stuff on our plate already?
Lift your head up and breathe
Find time to pull yourself up from what you are currently focused on and assess what you’ve got on the go. What are the things that are currently demanding your attention? What are your immediate priorities? What do you need to do, but can be left until later? (If you’re having trouble figuring it out, a braindump may be a good way to go).
I generally find that most people prefer not to seek the answers to the questions I’ve asked above — they’re worried that knowing will only add to their stress. The reality is that there are few things that generate as much fear and anxiety as the unknown. If you know what the demands on your time are, you can at least take active steps to prioritize what needs to be done, and alert the appropriate people if a deadline is going to slip.
Awareness will free you from the burden of knowing only that you have an undefined number of other things you need to do. (This is a common concept in GTD, and much of the methodology is based around addressing the open loops that are tugging at your mind, thereby freeing it up to focus).
You’ll be amazed at the relief and clarity that can be brought by the simple action of taking ten minutes out to assess where you stand and what needs to be done. I can attest that I am regularly surprised whenever I conduct this exercise, generally discovering that I actually have a lot less that needs to be dealt with immediately than it felt like I did ten minutes ago.
Above all, try to remember that the way that you feel about the demands on your time does not necessarily reflect reality.
The larger context
In the larger context, making the time to take a deep breath is analogous to making time to perform weekly reviews, or setting aside time during your day to meditate. Both of these activities simply represent other ways to pull your head up and assess where you stand and where you’re going.
If these suggestions sound simple, that’s good. Life doesn’t need to be as complicated as we make it. Taking steps to simplify your life may be exactly what you need.
As always, here’s the summary of the keypoints:
- While taking time to stop what you’re doing may cost a little in the short term, it will benefit you greatly in the long
- (Remember, it doesn’t matter how fast you’re swimming if you’re dead)
- The unknown will generate more stress than anything else. Taking stock of where you are and what demands are on your time will give you clarity and relax you
- Learning the skill of retreating to centre yourself (this is what we’ve been talking about) will continue to serve you as you get better at it
- Meditation, weekly reviews, and other techniques are all just different implementations of this simple concept