Breathing Focus & Re-focus Exercise, Percentage Habits, Foundation of Self-Development
🤸♀️ Stretch 42
🤸♀️ IN THIS WEEK'S STRETCH:
Slow breathing, focus & re-focus meditation. What are you willing to do to improve executive functioning and focus?
Percentage Habits. A different, more long-term approach to building habits.
Your nervous system and brain chemistry. No point in reading self-development books without a basic understanding.
🫁 SLOW BREATHING-FOCUSED MEDITATION TO IMPROVE EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING AND FOCUS
As you’ve heard me talk about before, I’m super fascinated by the power of our breath to improve our focus and productivity.
We all seem to accept that, to improve our physical health, we need to do physical exercise. For some reason, we don’t think the same way about psychological health or cognitive capacity.
But we should!
I’m making it my #1 priority to do a breathing-focused meditation first thing in the morning.
Most of the time, it’s a struggle.
I rarely feel like I’m in the right mindset or have the time (although I always seem to have plenty of time to scroll through my phone!)
So I need to find a way to mentally up the urgency and the importance of daily meditation.
And that seems to be working for me through books like Peak Mind and studies like the ones below, backing up the idea that having a meditation practice is a modern-day superpower.
The Influence of Slow-Paced Breathing on Executive Function
This is a fascinating 2021 study with 78 participants showing the effects of slow breathing on cognitive function.
One group watched a TV travel documentary, whereas the other group did 3 × 5 minutes of slow-paced breathing exercises.
The breathing exercise was:
Inhale through the nose for 4.5 seconds
Exhale through the mouth, with pursed lips, for 5.5 seconds
Participants were asked to put one hand on their chest and one hand on their stomach and were given the following instructions: “The hand on the chest should not move. Only the hand on the belly should move. The belly should get bigger during the inhalation phase and smaller during the exhalation phase.” This way of breathing reflects an optimal activation of the diaphragm. (The diaphragm, located below the lungs, is the major muscle of respiration.)
Then they did a bunch of cognitive tests on both groups.
I won’t share the detailed findings here, but overall, the study showed “slow-paced breathing to appear to be a promising technique to improve immediate executive function performance.” The breathing exercise group showed:
Better inhibition (your ability to resist distractions and impulses)
Better working memory (your ability to hold a goal in mind so you can move toward it)
Improved cognitive flexibility (your ability to change perspective)
I think that’s absolutely incredible. Instead of being annoyed at ourselves for being addicted to our phones or not reaching our goals—we have agency! There’re things we can do!
As the researchers said:
“Finally, at the applied level, these findings may have implications for individuals looking for a quick and easy method to alter their executive functions, for example, to better execute cognitively demanding tasks in their jobs.”
Quick and easy. I know, it almost sounds too easy. Can it really be that easy?
(Slight tangent, but this reminds me of one of my favorite questions to ask myself when I’m stressing about something: “What would this look like if it were easy?” It’s amazing how much that simple question unblocks for me. Anyway, back to our breath.)
13 Minutes of Focus and Re-Focus Breathing Meditation
Okay, here’s one more study for you.
“Peer-reviewed studies from labs at New York University show that a 13-minute per day “focus and re-focus” meditation significantly improves focus at other times.
The key: it’s not about focus—it’s about re-focus. This means that every time your mind drifts is an opportunity to refocus and to build up the circuits for focusing.”
So here’s what’s interesting about this:
You should fully expect to lose your focus every few seconds. The point is to continually bring your focus back to your breath (or whatever your point of focus is, but in my case: my breath.)
By repeatedly doing this, you’re training up the brain circuits involved in directing your mental focus and concentration.
I think that’s why many people struggle with sticking with a meditation habit. It feels impossible to stay focused. But that’s precisely the point. That means you’re doing it right.
I like this analogy I read the other day:
Catching your mind wandering and returning to your focus is not a failure to properly meditate. It’s a “rep”—the same way a bicep curl or bench press is a rep. Each "rep" isn’t a reason to get frustrated but just a reminder that you’re doing what needs to be done to train your brain for focus.
You might think: is 13 minutes even worth the effort?!
Looks like it is.
This study showed that brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. Even relatively short daily meditation practice can have similar behavioral effects as longer duration and higher-intensity meditation practices.
Ask Yourself: What Are You Willing To Do?
I’m combining the slow-paced breathing technique with the focus-re-focus technique:
Make time for a 13-15 mins breathing meditation session every day
Light, deep, slow nasal breathing
Focus and re-focus on the breath
Some studies talk about 12 minutes, others about 13, and others about 17.
Ultimately, that’s the wrong thing to focus on, at least initially, if you’re new to meditation.
I love this approach shared a while ago in Oliver Burkeman’s newsletter, The Imperfectionist:
"What am I willing to do?" You know the feeling: you've resolved to meditate, write, or exercise for a certain amount of time each day, but when it comes to the crunch, you just can't face it. My friend, the meditation teacher Jon Krop has the following advice: discover what non-zero amount of the activity you are willing to do. If your aim was to meditate for 20 minutes, ask if you'd be willing to do 19, and wait for the answer. No? OK. What about 18? No? How about 17? And so on. This seems like it ought to be too simple to work, but I can report that it really does. There comes a strange, utterly recognizable moment when you find you've stumbled over the threshold of willingness. "Oh, the answer is 12 minutes! That's how much I'm willing to do!" And you do it.”
Start with what you’re willing to do—even if that’s just 2 minutes. And build up from there.
If you’re thinking: “Yeah, I’ve tried that before. Doesn’t work.”
Check out my approach to habit-building: Percentage Habits.
% PERCENTAGE HABITS %
For the past 2.5 years, I've been using a habit app called Done.
In the beginning, I used it as a streak-tracking app. The problem with streaks is they can start to feel like an all-or-nothing situation. If you miss a day and lose your streak—that's it. You've now failed.
That's not very motivating.
So I stopped caring about "not breaking the streak" and switched to focusing on "hitting as many days as possible".
Percentages over streaks.
Here’s how I’ve been doing for my breathing meditation:
Every day I meditate, I mark it in the app.
In 2021, I meditated on 53% days of the year.
In 2022, I managed to increase it to 69% of the year.
This year so far, I’m at 79%. I set myself the goal to hit 85% by the end of the year—which I know I will achieve. The more I learn about the power of breathwork and meditation, the more motivated I am to make this a priority.
There are a few reasons why this approach works really well:
You avoid the all-or-nothing cycle that is so easy to fall into with new habits. “If I can’t do it perfectly every single day, there’s no point doing it.“ Wrong. Even if you do it for just a minute a day—it’s a win.
You allow for the power of compounding. You won’t change your life overnight. It takes weeks, months, and years to start seeing meaningful progress. So instead of focusing on a perfect habit, focus on perfecting your habit. Increase your % every month and every year.
You leave some room for flexibility. Missing a day here and there doesn't matter. You’re traveling; you’re sick; your kid is sick. Life happens. All that matters is you get back into the habit as quickly as possible.
So ask yourself:
What’s ONE habit you’d like to focus on and get started with?
Download the DONE app and start with that.
Remember: It’s not about hitting 100% immediately.
Set yourself a target, start small, and get going. See this as a long-term project. Every year you’ll increase your percentage and get better.
P.S.: you might notice in the visual that it says “meditate + BBV.” BBV stands for Breath Body Vision. A made-up acronym to remind me to focus on my breath and body and to expand my visual field throughout the day. A topic for another newsletter soon!
🧠 START LEARNING ABOUT YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM & BRAIN CHEMISTRY
Here’s a potentially controversial opinion I have:
There’s little point in reading a self-development book if you don’t take the time to learn about your nervous system and brain chemistry.
That's the foundation of literally everything.
Creating good habits, quitting bad habits, setting goals, staying motivated, having the energy to do all of this over long stretches of time.
All of the above depends on your nervous system and brain chemistry.
For me, having a basic understanding of how to self-regulate has made a huge difference and has eased a lot of the struggle and self-reproach. Going from “I can’t focus on anything, what’s wrong with me?!” to “My dopamine levels are low. I’ll go for a quick run, and I’ll try this again later.” World of difference for my self-confidence and motivation.
If you’re interested, here are some resources to get started (aside from reading this newsletter 😉):
All books by David Eagleman
Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke
Brain Rules by John Medina
The Leading Brain by Friederike Fabritius
Atomic Focus by Patrick McKeown
The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb
The Compass Of Pleasure by David Linden
Overloaded by Ginny Smith
💻 I'd also check out this free Nervous System Fundamentals guide that Jonathan Carson put together.