Breathe to Be Free

Sometimes, my mind is a terrible place to be.

Yesterday, I spent most of my brain power thinking about one thing. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. For hours. Even while I was doing other things, it kept creeping back in. I was trapped in my own head by my own thoughts.

I didn’t want to be thinking about it because thinking wasn’t going to do me any good. I was thinking about something out of my control, which is fruitless, and which I’m usually pretty good at not doing. Usually.

But, as is the way of things, the harder I tried not to think about it, the more the thoughts took root in my brain.

Don’t think of pink elephants.


It wasn’t until I went to yoga that I was able to free myself from this thought process. Allow me to explain.

Yoga is all about breath. In some ways, the breath is the most difficult part. Sure, the poses are hard, but trying to keep your mind focused on the moment — rather than on the thousands of worries waiting for you outside the studio — is another challenge altogether. While sweat is pouring down your face, and your muscles are burning gloriously, and your mind is darting from one thing to the next, maintaining that inhale… exhale… is really freaking hard.

But that’s the point.

Yoga teaches us how to be calm when we’re uncomfortable. It’s an invaluable skill, particularly when not doing yoga.

And so it was only when I started to focus on the breath that I was able to break free from my mental captors.

If you’re focusing on the breath, you’re in the moment. The breath is what’s happening right now. If you focus on the inhale… and exhale… you’re not worrying about what happened today, yesterday, what’s going to happen tomorrow or when you leave the studio, even if it’s just for a moment.

And that’s comforting. Because if you really focus on the breath — the way the air feels as it gets pulled in through your nose and fills up your lungs, and the way it feels as it leaves the body, taking with it everything you don’t need — you are reminded you’re alive. And that’s a very good thing.

My thoughts come back, of course. But rather than fight them, I merely observe them. I don’t try to force them out. I watch and let them pass by while I breathe.

Sometimes it takes a lot of breathing.

When the mind is loud and crowded, it can be a terrible place to be. But if we learn to quiet it, and empty from it all unnecessary thoughts, our sense of calm can be reclaimed.

Inhale… and exhale.

And practice.

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Too Many Inputs

Mark Sisson:

Namely, smartphones, social media, and the Internet in general has changed the way we experience the world. For many, it has replaced engagement with the real physical world almost entirely.

Brett Kelly, on reading intentionally:

It may sound narcissistic, but I feel a lot better laying my head down at night knowing that I spent 30–45 random minutes reading books and articles that I actually want to read instead of frustratedly skimming news that usually doesn’t interest me.

Paul Miller quit the Internet for a year:

I feel like I’ve only examined the internet up close. It’s been personal and pervasive in my life for over a decade, and I spend on average 12+ hours a day directly at an internet-connected terminal (laptop, iPad, Xbox), not to mention all the ambient internet my smartphone keeps me aware of.

Stephen Hackett:

Miller’s actions are probably over the top. That said, I do think many of us who are neck-deep in the Internet daily could use a healthy dose of self-control.

Richard J. Anderson:

How much of what I’m consuming in content each day is signal, and how much is noise? […]

Every click brings us a little shot of pure, full-strength dopamine. Don’t tell me you don’t get just the tiniest little thrill when you open your Twitter client, refresh your RSS feeds, or refresh your Instagram feed.

I love being a nerd, having a website, recording podcasts, tumbling, tweeting, reading RSS and Instapaper, and on occasion, even emailing.

I quit Facebook because it was a timesuck, and I need all the time I can get. It’s the same reason I don’t keep any games on my iPhone.

But sometimes, it’s still too much. I’ve felt digitally overwhelmed lately.

I had a nonstop weekend last week. Work was consuming, people were graduating, mothers were celebrating, family was remembering. And so my online life fell by the wayside.

Other than increasing unread counts, there were no consequences for my being off the grid. But I felt a certain heaviness every time I did take a moment to check my phone. I felt removed from the online world.

Distraction is ubiquitous. It’s so easy to wake up in the morning, reach for the iPhone on your nightstand, and spend half an hour reading and consuming.

I haven’t picked up my Kindle in months, even though I love it, and I think it’s because I’m already reading all day. Reading books takes focus and concentration. It’s intellectual work, and I often don’t have the strength for it at the end of the day. I’d rather just thumb through more tweets and RSS feeds.

Combatting information overload is an iterative process.

I’m not about to quit the Internet completely; I find too much value in it, and it’s helped me discover things I love very much. It’s helped introduce me to this online world of writers and creators, a community that I aspire to be a part of.

Ultimately, I agree with Rich. The simple answer is mindfulness: being aware of all of our inputs and what they contribute to our lives.

RSS is the biggest culprit for me. I’m currently subscribed to 98 RSS feeds, some of which are high volume, many of which are not. I’ve made a conscious effort to remove any feeds I deem extraneous. If I find I’m constantly swiping “read” on a majority of a feed’s posts, it’s time to unsubscribe.

I’m considering moving to a Patrick Rhone-esque RSS system in the future, but for now I’m going to continue to keep a close, mindful eye on my inputs, and maintain the self-control to not check them every five minutes.

Sometimes, you need to shut down.

The solution to too many inputs is simple. Evaluate each input as follows:

  1. Be mindful of the input’s value.
  2. When the input is no longer valuable, remove it. (This requires letting go of the fear of missing out on what the input provides.)
  3. Repeat.

Eliminate the unnecessary. Inner peace 101.

Have an extraordinary weekend, everyone.

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Ubiquitous Distraction, Oases of Quiet, and Why You Can't Come Up with Anything

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the idea of ubiquitous distraction — the notion that distractions are everywhere, and that it’s increasingly difficult to exist in a state without distractions.

The trouble is that distractions often don’t seem like distractions, and sometimes we don’t even consider something a distraction, even though it’s preventing us from doing what we should or even want to be doing, which itself seems like a pretty good definition of “distraction” to me.

Take checking Twitter, for instance. I love checking Twitter. There’s so much cool stuff on Twitter. Many days, it’s a gateway to something inspiring, thought-provoking, or just plain interesting. It has value, no question about it.

But at the same time, when you’re checking Twitter, it’s very difficult to do anything else, or at least do anything else well. It’s the case for single-tasking. The reason for this inability, I think, begins with the fact that checking Twitter requires you to receive information.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. We’re receiving information all the time, through all of our senses, and probably even when we’re asleep.

I believe an incompatibility exists between receiving information and, shall we say, creating your own information. That is, there is a tension between absorption and creation.

When you’re receiving information, it’s difficult to put out information. For example, it’s hard to listen when you’re talking. When you’re talking, you’re acting as an output. You’re sending words out into the air. When you’re listening, you’re receiving the words from someone else.

A talker’s output is a listener’s input.

Talking and listening at the same time is very difficult. We think we’re capable of doing both simultaneously, but more likely we are alternating in rapid succession between talking and listening.

Suppose I’m reading a book and therefore taking in external information. To understand what I’m reading, I need to pause and think about it. This process happens almost instantly, probably between sentences. That’s what punctuation is for. Otherwise, we would never have an opportunity to understand a thought.

Beyond mere understanding lies the act of pondering. To think about what I read, I need to stop reading and process it. I might have passing, reactionary thoughts to what I’m reading as I read it, but to truly ponder on it, I’m better off pausing to reflect.

Our inputs are innumerable. Twitter, Facebook, texts, books, radio, television, magazines, etc. Whenever we interact with these things, we are receiving information, and thus we are unable to create new information, whether we realize it or not.

With that in mind, it’s clear that reaching a creative state — that is, a state where creation is possible — is incredibly difficult.

Suppose you’re trying to come up with a creative, original thought, or otherwise do some kind of work wherein you’re making something out of nothing. Writing a blog post, a poem, a short story. Painting a picture. Composing a song. Something that requires you to be creative if you’re going to produce anything significant.

If you’re surrounded by inputs, that state of creation is going to be difficult to reach. How can you create something while you brain is busy taking in and understanding external information?

As long as you are surrounded by inputs, you will find no room for your creative output.

This relationship strikes me as insidious in the sense that we may never realize it’s happening.

Say it’s a Wednesday night, and I just queued Thursday’s blog post for publication. But, now I’m in trouble, because I’ve run out of ideas for potential blog posts. I’m all tapped out. But, I need to publish something on Friday morning. The readers depend on it. No matter, something will come to me over the course of the day.

I wake up Thursday morning and check Twitter and RSS. I catch up on the day’s news. Then, I put some music on while I take a shower. I listen to a podcast as I’m eating lunch. Read the news some more. More music or podcasts in the car on the way to work. Actual working while I’m at work. More music or podcasts on the way home. Read some more news while eating dinner.

And now I’m screwed because the day is over, and still no new ideas have come to me!

Well, how could they?

If you were taking in information all day long — news, music, podcasts, other people, etc. — then how could your brain possibly have had a chance to create something original? There was no space to create.

This brings me to an excellent video featuring John Cleese called “A Lecture on Creativity”, which Merlin Mann referenced on Episode 62 of Back to Work.

In his lecture, Cleese advises creating what he calls an “oasis of quiet” when it comes time to do your creative work. He recommends five things as necessary to reaching a creative state, but I’m only going to refer to two of them here. You can (and should) watch the video for the rest.

The first requirement is space, which Cleese says means, “sealing yourself off” from the world. Some place without inputs, without distractions.

The second requirement is time, as in a set period when you wrestle with your problem and only your problem, and after which you go back to your life. He recommends ninety minutes, as it generally takes a while to get used to being alone with your problem and letting the creative juices flow.

Cleese’s “oasis of quiet” is something increasingly rare these days because we are so often surrounded by inputs. In my example of trying to come up with a new blog post idea, I never allowed myself the opportunity to experience an “oasis of quiet”. I was always receiving external information, and thus my brain never had the opportunity to create something of its own, or, to pull knowledge from the air.

To do our best creative work, to really make something great, I believe we first need to build that oasis of quiet. Because there are so many inputs — and therefore so much noise — in our world today, and because we have become so acclimated to them, we do not realize how stifling they are to our creativity.

I’ll end with a quote from Cleese’s lecture:

It’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent — like thinking — and it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about.

Things like Twitter, as wonderful as it is, are trivial when it comes to creation. Sure, you might discover something that inspires within you a new idea, but following that, the actually process of making something with that idea can only be achieved in an oasis of quiet.

It’s up to you to determine what your oasis looks like. Perhaps you’re sitting. Perhaps you’re pacing. Perhaps you’re alone, or in a crowded café. Perhaps you’re on the couch in the dark, or out in the sunshine.

Whatever it looks like, your oasis needs to afford you and your mind the space and time to create. To do that, you must eliminate inputs. And, you must be patient while you wait for your creativity to come out of the woodwork.

Take the time to turn off your inputs, and find the space and opportunity for your creative output to blossom.

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On Tweaking vs. Fiddling

Mike Vardy makes an important distinction between tweaking and fiddling:

Fiddling generally involves avoiding the things you need to do rather than work towards making those things happen. You wind up getting caught up – and have to play catch up as a result.

Tweaking is making changes that are necessary in order to better optimize your situation – in this case, my ability to shift between work mode and life mode. Tweaking are changes for the sake of progress; fiddling are changes for the sake of change.

I totally agree.

As I mentioned in my Byword review, I’m pretty good at avoiding fiddling. I admit that I love to go through preferences and settings, but once I have everything set up, I tend to forget about them. That’s tweaking. Fiddling, on the other hand, would be playing with preferences to the point where it interferes with getting your work done.

For me, tweaking is a way to tailor something to suit my specific needs. If we’re talking text editors, for example, the proper font is important. I use Open Sans in Byword, which is also the body font I use on this website. It just feels good seeing that nice sans-serif on a pleasant white background.

Much of my tweaking comes from a desire to make an app “feel” good. Fonts are a big part of how an app feels. Look at Instapaper. Each of its iOS apps’ new fonts has a different feel to it, and choosing the right one for you is central to having a great reading experience. (I’m currently using Proxima Nova on my iPhone and Tisa on my iPad.)

The point is that taking the time to decide what font I want to write or read in is not fiddling. I don’t spend time trying different options every time I open the app. If I did that, I’ve never get anything written or read. Rather, I carefully consider my choices, pick my favorites, and then get to work.

If I love the way an app looks or functions, I’m much more likely to use it. If Instapaper only had Arial and Comic Sans, I’d never feel compelled to open it. The lack of tweaking would deter me from using the app. In turn, I’d just keep saving things to Instapaper and never get around to reading them, which would make me feel guilty. Or — heaven forbid — I might switch to another Read Later app. Fortunately, Instapaper is highly functional, reliable, and offers just enough customization to make using it a joy. After I’ve taken a moment to pick my preferences, I can get down to reading.

The same is true of Byword. It’s reliable, ultra pretty, and it works on all of my devices. Byword makes me want to write the way Instapaper makes me want to read.

In addition to apps and productivity, tweaking can also help improve your quality of life. As Mike suggests, tweaking is a way of refining and improving. It’s adjusting for the sake of getting better.

If you love taking hot showers, but your skin is always dry, you might try taking cold showers — James Bond style. That’s a tweak.

If you find yourself spending an extra hour in bed playing on your phone in the morning, you might consider moving your charger to your desk. That’s a tweak.

If you hate running, you might try running barefoot like Mike and me. I couldn’t stand the thought of running a few years ago, but since I tweaked my footwear, I love it.

The important part is not spending too much time on any of these decisions. That’s when tweaking becomes fiddling. If you’re spending more time tweaking than you are getting things done, you need to dial it back. Fiddling is aimless; tweaking is focused.

Tweak, then do. Repeat as needed — no more, no less.

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Dive Deep: The Case for Single-tasking

One of the great things about the iPad — on which I’m currently writing — is that it forces you to do one thing at a time.

True, the iPad is capable of “multitasking”, but it’s really just an interface that allows you to switch between apps quickly. You can never have two apps onscreen at the same time. Some perceive this as a limitation, and many cite it as the reason they would never be able to use the iPad to get any “real work” done.

We often associate multitasking with productivity. After all, why wouldn’t you want to get a bunch of things done at the same time?

Multitasking does have some value, but we always forget about the power of single-tasking.

When we’re working on multiple tasks at the same time, or even thinking about multiple things at the same time, our focus is divided between each entity. Even I know enough math to understand that if you’re working on two tasks at once, each is only receiving half of your time and attention.

When we spread our time and attention over many different tasks at once, the quality of our work suffers.

Quality suffers because our brains are built for single-tasking. When we multitask, our brains are jumping from thing to thing very quickly. We feel like we’re working on several things at once, but our brains are actually moving from one thought process to another in rapid succession. I tend to make more careless mistakes when I force my brain to operate this way. When I’m thinking about several things at once, my mind feels scattered and overwhelmed, which is stressful and exhausting.

By spreading ourselves too thin over too many different things, we negate our ability to focus deeply on one specific thing.

If you jump off a diving board with spread arms and legs — jumping jack style — you won’t sink very deep. But, if you jump off with your arms and legs together — pencil style, I believe — you can easily touch the bottom of the pool.

It’s the same with multitasking and single-tasking. Spread yourself too thin, and you won’t be able to delve too deeply into any one project. But, if you focus all of your attention on a single problem, you can reach new depths of productivity and understanding.

Writing this article on my iPad forces me to think deeply about the topic and what I’m saying. I’m not writing and surfing the web. I’m not writing and listening to music. I’m not writing and playing guitar. If I were doing any of those things at the same time, my attention would be divided between them, and I’d only be able to scratch the surface of what I was writing about.

When you want to do your best work, single-task. It can mean the difference between a dive and a belly flop.

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