I like to swim. The rhythm of the stroke, the silence of the water, the regularity of breathing: they bring peace to an overactive mind that otherwise gets overwhelmed by things to do, while getting little done.
Recently, I expressed a desire to increase my lung capacity underwater. If I could come up less often for air, my stroke would be more efficient, and my lap time would be faster. The technique I was shown was fundamentally simple, but through it I discovered a way to overcome writer’s block.
As a writer, I’m painfully aware of how crippling the pressure of my own expectations can be to my work. My search for the perfect word or phrase often leads to paralysis rather than progress, leading to a compressed state of mind and body. In that state, my habit has been to abandon my work entirely, indulging instead into unnecessary distractions (reformatting old to-do lists, making new to-do lists, deciding that “right now” is the best time to try out that three-hour curry recipe or remove an ancient stain from a corner of the carpet). Giving in to anxiety at critical moments has not, so far, helped me to be more productive.
To increase my lung capacity, I had to learn to hold my breath underwater for longer. My first instinct was to think hard about holding my breath, gulp a huge lungful of air, go under for as long as I could, and come up when I thought I was going to collapse. Scratch that, I was told by my dive-master friend, it’s the same bad habit from work: building up expectation, creating unnecessary pressure and abandoning the exercise as soon as things got uncomfortable. Instead, I was told to think less about the process, take a moderate lungful of air, go under and just watch my mind. It sounded weird, but not so weird that I wasn’t willing to try it.
While we were talking, my friend suddenly turned to me and said,
Before I had a chance to over-prepare or make a big deal of anything, I had taken a natural breath of air and was underwater. In the silence of the empty pool, I focused on stepping back to “watch my mind”. It was a strange sensation, like watching a movie: I saw my mind notice the blue tiles of the pool, a floating twig, the bubbles from the pool filter, my floating limbs, the coolness of the water against my skin. I saw it wander around, wanting to do something (even asking “Are we there yet?”), willing my body to resurface right now. I watched as it started to make a big fuss: You’re out of air. You’re about to burst. Your lungs are going to collapse any second now.
My mind was pushing every panic button it knew, and this time I chose to just observe it in silence. The less attention I paid to it, the less the imagined anxiety grew, and the less breathless I felt. In that moment I discovered magic reserves of air that allowed me to stay underwater longer, when previously I’d have resurfaced a long time ago. I watched my mind push the panic button twice more before I felt, with no anxiety, that now it was time to come up. When I resurfaced, I wasn’t gasping for air, but was breathing deeply, normally. I checked my time, and saw that I’d been underwater for five times longer than I’d expected.
In quiet observation, I saw my mind’s desire to believe an anxiety that didn’t really exist. In staying steady through discomfort, an imagined disaster disappeared. In the process of stepping back, I was relaxed enough to write this article in a fifth of the time it’d otherwise have taken me. In learning to hold my breath underwater, I found a spaciousness that allowed me to work more efficiently.
Through this process, I discovered the following tips to get more done with less stress:
- Spend less energy on building up expectations, and more on execution
- When you feel anxious, try to step back and watch your mind
- Try to determine whether your anxiety is real or imagined
- Try to stay quiet through discomfort, instead of reacting to it
- Find an easy activity that relaxes you, and switch to it each time you feel stuck
I also learned that the next time writer’s block strikes, I’m going underwater to hold my breath.