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.
Photo by It’s Life
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31 thoughts on “3 Ways Your Breathing Can Improve Your Productivity”
Ooh, I’m pleasantly surprised I learned something here, Chris!
I was expecting the usual “breathe deeply and you will have more energy and feel less stressed”.
And now you bring in the mindfulness of breathing practice to help us focus. I’ve never actually thought of doing that… but I will soon! We’ll see how well this works for helping me focus :)
Hi Vlad — looking forward to hearing how it works for you. This article is really just the tip of the iceberg, I think, in terms of how what we usually think of as mindfulness or spiritual practices can help us, in the moment, when we’re looking for more focus in our work.
It’s shocking how shallow we breathe in daily life. I wish everybody would ‘check in with their bodies periodically’, since you can learn a lot just by listening to your body.
If a little breathing goes a long way, imagine how far a deep breath can take us!
Hi Martin — I think that’s a great way of putting it — that we can learn a lot by checking in with our bodies, whether we’re doing it to monitor or breathing or not.
Hi Chris .. the three breaths are so important and being promoted as a way of us helping ourselves .. wherever we are .. just relax and adjust, balance, and then proceed til the next time – probably not too many minutes away. As you say – and also by focusing on your breath, it helps your mind too. I’d have loved to have known about this – or allowed myself to find out about it years ago .. Really good advice here .. thank you.
Hi Hilary — thanks for the appreciation — it’s true, we tend to forget the relationship between the mind and body, and noticing how much focus and peace our breathing can bring reminds us how important that connection is.
It is sort of comical how I forget to take deep breaths sometimes until I am reminded through something I read. I go days without taking some deep breaths, even though it would take 2 seconds.
We sure do restrict our breathing sometime. I don’t really take notice of this. I will remember this the next time I notice myself restricting my breathing in some way.
Hi Armen — yes, I think those habitual, shallow ways of breathing are deeply ingrained for a lot of people. I’ve found that just scheduling a time (during my meditation practice) when I’ll breathe deeply each day has been helpful to me in changing this habit.
I’ve just begun to think about this topic, as I am someone who suffers from social anxiety. Unwittingly, I often fail to breathe as much as I should because I am tense from the anxiety. When I become conscious of how I breathe, I am able to take deeper and more shallow breaths, increasing my focus and relaxation, just as you noted. Interesting article.
Hi Dan — that’s a good observation — that breathing consciously can help us in a lot of different situations — certainly not just when we’re meditating or working — and I’m glad to hear it’s helping you with the concerns you’ve had.
As I often told you I love your down to earth practical insights.
I am practicing your breathing techniques and they work.
As I said before I often found myself cutting veggies like a lunatic, cramped fingers and no breathing.
Often resulting in feeling harassed, tired and cuts in my fingers, no kidding.
I have been observing myself and when I caught myself holding my breath (often) I stopped and concentrated on my breathing.
Now I do it regularly, even when I am typing this I am checking my breathing and it is very helpful.
I even walk slower now I am aware and guess what, tripping over things is a thing of the past.
I also love the simplicity of it and that it works of course.
Hi Wilma — I’m glad to hear checking in with your breathing has made veggie cutting a more palatable experience. :) That’s a great observation — that it’s actually possible to get conscious of your breathing as you’re doing something else, whether you’re at your desk, doing chores, or something else.
Thanks for sharing these practical applications of breathing and focusing on the breath. I love the link to procrastination – and I’m definitely going to try that out.
Just today I ran out of energy and focus and brainpower around 5pm….before I was heading off to a final meeting of the day. I spent a few minutes taking deep breaths and it was amazing to see the energy flow back into my body. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Chris.
Hi Tara — I’m glad to hear these techniques have been working for you. And, like you say, it only requires a few minutes (or, sometimes, even seconds) of breathing to get back in touch with that life energy you’re talking about.
These are some excellent breathing tips. I’m sure they will really come in handy during stressful situations. Thanks so much for sharing.
Hi Nea — Thanks for the appreciation. Yes, stressful situations are a great time to use these techniques to feel grounded and centered.
Chris! I forget to breathe all the time. I go through whole days without ever giving thought to it and to how I could be making it work for me better.
Thanks for the reminder here!!
… pays attention to breathing as prepares to hit Submit…
Hi Jannie — I think we all need a reminder to breathe once in a while, and like you say, we can benefit by paying attention to our breathing no matter what we’re doing.
Great post, Chris! (But of course…)
FYI, this post made my Five Friday Favorites roundup of favorite posts from the preceding week:
Hi Curt — glad to hear you liked the post, and I’m looking forward to checking out the other posts on your list.
I agree with other comments that I had never thought about breathing as a way to focus. I figured I had to have a pen in hand to do that (I have found if I take notes I can focus better). I think focused breathing is a better way. Thanks.
Hi Marly — I’m glad you’ve found the article useful — and I’d add that a wonderful thing about focusing on the breath is that you can do it while you’re engaged in some other task, like taking notes or whatever else you’re doing as you work.
I wish I’d read this last Monday instead of today! I had a really tough week last week and at times it was a struggle to answer the phone (especially because with caller id I knew who was calling!) or to make calls. In the end I had to resort to giving myself a stern talking to and pasting a big (if fake) smile on my face. It might have been a bit kinder on me if I’d remembered to just breathe! But, after reading this post, I’ve had a brainwave. !’m going to lengthen the ringtime on my phone so I can have a bit of extra time to breathe before I have to answer a phone call. I’m feeling better about next week already, thanks!
Hi Topi — thanks for your share — it sounds like you got into the habit of pushing away the frustration, sadness, or whatever was coming up for you, and that you’re now trying out breathing through those feelings and allowing them to pass away on their own. Like you say, that strikes me as a more compassionate way to relate to yourself.
Nice post! I was aware of the importance of breathing and moving through things etc but not really as much until now. As an important part of mediation – maybe I should take it up.
Hi Craig — thanks for the appreciation — I hope focusing on your breathing is helpful to you.
that’s a real good one Christopher, very creative choice of the topic
Thanks Farouk — I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Even though I have been breathing all my life, I find that I have not been doing it properly for the most part. Breathing instructions should be lesson 101 when we are born. Yet I never realized its importance until I started meditating. It is not easy to focus my mind on the breath but the more I practice, the better I become. Still, some days are more difficult than others.
Hi Evelyn — I like that idea — I imagine few parents out there are teaching their children about conscious breathing, and I think it could be so helpful to kids when they’re feeling anxiety or some other intense sensation.
Great job… I have passed on your ‘work’ on to friends. Please keep it coming.. Would you believe I first became aware of my ‘breathing pattern’ while looking at photos of myself surfing a few years ago? It turns out that I was holding my breath at critical (stressful) times in the wave… No bueno!!!! Today I’m doing better but more ‘good breathing’ practice is needed….It’s like Yogi said- I think-, ” In theory practice doesn’t matter, but in practice it does”..:))) I’m in my 70s and you would think that by now I would know how to breath.. Da, go figure… :))) The gooooooood news is that I’m learning how to ‘focus on my breath and the moment’ through my surfing and yoga practice.. I guess it is possible to teach an ‘old dog’ a new trick :)))) I appreciate the tips ‘Coach’…