All you need are three breaths

Takeaway: Before switching between tasks, take three deep breaths. It’s a super simple way to reset your focus and set a quick intention for what comes next. Three techniques you can try: box breathing, the 4-7-8 technique, and the 5-5-5 breathing technique.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 28s.

Podcast Length: 14 minutes, 21s (link to play podcast at the bottom of post).

All you need are three breaths

Breathing is something we all do but rarely think about. And yet it dictates whether we feel anxious or calm, tense or relaxed (and not to mention keeps us alive). Harnessing the power of your breath is one of the most simple and powerful things you can do for your mental and physical well-being.  

That leads to one of my favorite new productivity tactics: the next time you switch between projects, meetings, or return to work after answering email, take three big, deep breaths. 

That’s it. 

This simple half a minute is a great way to transition from one task to another, and it helps your mind reset and focus for the next thing on your plate. This tactic also helps you clear your mind of some “attention residue,” a phenomena I write about in Hyperfocus.  

Coined by Dr. Sophie Leroy, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Washington, attention residue is the term that describes the fragments of a previous task that remain in your memory after you shift to another activity. If you jump immediately from task A to task B, your mind will still be thinking about that previous work, preventing you from fully engaging in whatever is going on at hand. This phenomena is just one of the reasons why multitasking makes us less efficient.  

Taking three deep breaths between tasks will serve to dust out some of this attention residue. Consider it a bit of mental housekeeping—clearing the table before eating your next meal. 

While three deep breaths of any length will do, you can also try your hand at a few different techniques. 

  • Box breathing is an inhale hold, exhale hold technique. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and then start again on the inhale. Think of it as constructing a box with your breath, where the “walls” of the box are four seconds in length. 
  • Another is the 4-7-8 breathing technique where you inhale for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, and exhale for eight seconds. While everyone is different, this pattern has been used to reduce anxiety and help you sleep.  
  • The last pattern you can try is the 5-5-5 breathing techniqueStudies suggest that a pattern of 5.5 second inhales and exhales is the optimal breathing rate to achieve higher heart rate variability—which has been associated with improved physical and mental well-being.  

Taking three deep breaths is an easy, powerful, and completely free tactic that should take no more than a minute, even if you’re taking really long, intentional breaths. Give it a shot the next time you feel yourself frantically hopping from one thing to another. 

If you want to dig deeper into the fascinating art and science of breathing, I highly recommend the book Breath, by James Nestor. We chat about it a bit on this week’s podcast.

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