While we’re working, we often get so absorbed in our projects that we forget about our breathing. When this happens, particularly when we’re under stress, we can lapse into restricted breathing—inhaling in short gasps, or shallowly into the upper chest. What we don’t often realize is that how we breathe can deeply affect our efficiency and enjoyment in what we do. In this post, I’ll offer three breathing techniques to help you stay focused and peaceful as you work.
1. Breathe Through The Urge
Productivity writers often tell us to resist the urge to put off our work, but they usually don’t offer much practical advice on how to do that. In my experience working with people on productivity issues, we often procrastinate when an uncomfortable thought or sensation— anxiety or anger, for instance—comes up as we’re working, and we’d rather not experience it. We need, I think, some way to stay centered even when faced with those intense thoughts and feelings.
I’ve found that the best approach in these moments is to breathe deeply. Instead of turning away from your task to play FreeCell or instant message with friends, hold your attention on what you’re doing, and take full breaths until the difficult sensation passes away. If you start feeling anxious as you’re working, for instance, breathe slowly and deeply until the anxiety dissipates.
When we keep breathing in the face of discomfort, often the difficult sensations we’re feeling seem more manageable and less threatening. As Dr. Miriam Adahan puts it in Living With Difficult People, Including Yourself, “when you keep breathing calmly or moving purposefully, your muscles will teach your brain that there is no real danger.”
2. Focus On Your Breathing
Zen meditators often concentrate on their breathing to stay alert, and keep their minds from drifting into memories or concerns about the future. What I’ve found is that this technique isn’t just useful for meditation—it also works great whenever we find ourselves getting distracted at work. We can focus on our breathing to bring our attention back to this moment, and to what we’re doing.
Many meditation teachers explain why this technique works by observing that, whenever we focus our attention on what’s happening in our bodies, our awareness naturally settles into the present. If I ask you to pay attention to your breathing, you probably won’t start daydreaming about the way you used to breathe five years ago—you’ll focus on the act and experience of breathing right now. When your attention returns to the present, the memories and worries that may have been bothering you fade into the background.
3. Notice How You Restrict Your Breathing
If you’re feeling tense or uncomfortable as you’re working, take a moment and notice how you’re breathing. Are you breathing shallowly and rapidly, into your throat or chest? Are you making breathing difficult by clenching any muscles? Some people I know check in with their bodies periodically as they’re working and discover they’re hardly breathing at all.
When we aren’t allowing ourselves enough air, it’s no surprise that working feels painful and worrisome. If you notice that you’re breathing in a shallow or restricted way, see if you can slow and deepen your breaths, and let go of any tension that’s cutting off the natural flow of your respiration. Working becomes easier and more fulfilling, I think you’ll find, when you breathe fully as you do it.