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Productivity Hack: increase your focus in 2 minutes by using your vision

In an increasingly distracted world, mental focus might be our most valued asset. And with many of us working from home, there is even less delineation between our work life and home life making it even harder to focus and concentrate on the task in front of us. We jump from one zoom call to the next, emails keep coming, and our homelife makes its way into our work day at random times. 

But while concentration and focus might be in short supply at times, there is a growing understanding in the scientific community that vision and breathing –both of which we can control voluntarily– directly affect the brain and our emotional states. That means we can consciously alter our vision or our breathing to bring about a state of alertness or a state of calm for instance, or even a state of focus. 

Most of us have heard about changing your breath to either increase your energy or to calm down, but you can also consciously alter your vision to tap into your ability to focus.

In effect, you can use your vision as a shortcut to boost your concentration and lean harder into productivity

Strategy #1: Intentionally narrow your vision to engage your mental focus

Your eyes are designed to determine your state of arousal.  In a high alert state, your pupils dilate and you start seeing one thing in sharp focus and everything else disappears. Mental focus follows visual focus. In other words, once you are focusing intensely on something visually, your mind follows and concentrates on that. The visual focus is what brings the brain into cognitive focus.

Armed with this information, you can bring on a state of alertness voluntarily. Consciously narrow your vision when you need to concentrate on something.  Put intense visual focus onto what you need to laser in on.  Go into “Portrait Mode” and let everything else fall into the background. By deliberately narrowing your vision, and blocking out all visual distraction, you’re sending a clear message to your brain about what matters and what needs its energy. 

Strategy #2: Take “focus breaks” to help you lean harder into your work. 

Interestingly, micro-recoveries in between highly focused work sessions can help us focus even better in the next work session. Think of it as a sort of mental HIIT. 

You want to deliberately decompress between sessions of intense work/focus. 

You can do that by periodically widening your vision like you do when viewing the horizon. Changing your gaze to this panoramic vision will relax your brain and turn off the alertness mode in your brain which will allow your mind to destress. In effect, when you widen and relax your gaze you’re hitting the “reset” button so you can handle the upcoming load.  

Learning how to de-focus and re-focus very rapidly is a hugely practical skill to reduce the strain of stress, so you can get back and lean harder into the work again. 

For instance, when you walk out of your meeting, don’t dive into your phone to check your emails or hop on social media. Staring at your phone narrows your vision and does nothing to help your brain recharge. Instead, give yourself a couple minutes before you re-engage into work. Go into panoramic vision: relax your gaze, relax/lower your alertness. Do the same when you get off a call or complete a highly focused work session. Intentionally relax your visual focus periodically to boost your mental focus on the things that matter.

Practice toggling between narrow intense focus, and lowered alertness whenever you can. By relaxing your autonomic nervous system, you will be able to lean into the stress better and be more productive in the session that follows that small break. 

Try these strategies and let me know how it goes for you!

Does Wim Hof Breathing Increase Alertness in the Morning? I’m Testing It Out!

Need a little caffeine-free boost in the morning? Using the Wim Hof breathing technique is supposed to quickly increase your energy, elevate your mood, and help you be ready for whatever life throws at you. 

Your mood affects your physiology —how you sit, how you breathe, how you hold your shoulders…– but it’s a two way street. Your physiology *also* affects how you feel. Just like a walk or a good workout can radically alter your mood, changing your breath pattern, even for a few minutes, alters your body chemistry and your emotional state. 

When it comes to feeling alive and energized, a lot has been said and written lately about the Wim Hof method. And for good reasons. While breathing techniques are ancient, the scientific study of breath is still in its infancy, and Hof has been very willing to have science take a closer look at his method. He contends that by committing to a consistent practice of a combination of meditation, Wim Hof Breathing, and cold exposure, you can change your mind and body —particularly your energy level, stress response and immune system response. 

The breathing portion of his method goes something like this: While sitting comfortably or laying down, take 30 to 40 quick, deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Then, breathe in deep, breathe out and hold until you need to breathe (30 seconds or more). Inhale again, as deep as you can, and hold it for 10 to 15 seconds. Repeat the sequence 3 times. 

A 2014 dutch study lends scientific credibility to Hof’s claims and adds credence to the idea that conscious breathing can allow us to influence deeper processes in our bodies, and more recent studies seem to have confirmed that you can control your autonomic nervous system, alleviate arthritis, and even cause a shift in your metabolism which strengthens the immune system. Anecdotally, many people have found clear health benefits from adopting a regular practice of his method. 

Ultimately, you will have to decide for yourself if this breathing practice (or the whole method) is effective in your own life, but the initial science is compelling so far. I have started incorporating this type of hyper-oxygenated breathing as part of my morning routine and I have found it tremendously effective at quickly increasing both my physical energy and my mental alertness. The adrenaline boost you get from this type of breathing, is paradoxically accompanied by a great sense of calm. That makes it a great precursor to meditation and it’s a fantastic way to set myself up for a productive day. 

Since it’s best done on an empty stomach, after getting a few minutes of sunlight, hydrating, and reading for a few minutes, I move on to the Wim Hof breathing. I follow that up with a quick meditation to set my intentions for the day and clear any head trash and negative emotions likely to hold me back, and I’m ready to take on the day. 

If you decide to try it, I suggest checking out this beginner’s tutorial from Wim Hof himself first. If you find it effective at boosting your energy, the app is a good option. 

One word of caution worth mentioning: some breathwork experts like Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage, warn that this type of Hyper oxygenated breathing is not for everybody. Because you are off-loading a tremendous amount of CO2 over those few minutes, your urge to breathe will be greatly diminished during the long hold, and you should never do it near any bodies of water for instance. Use caution and common sense.

Whether you choose to try out Wim Hof Breathing or not, breathing exercises in general can help you quickly shift your state by shifting your physiology. Some practices will help increase your state of arousal a bit by upping your adrenaline. Others will help lower anxiety and stress levels by downshifting your heart rate. You can play with those exercises and use them as quick tools to change your emotional state. Like any tool, you should incorporate it for at least a few weeks to experience the benefits instead of trying it just once.

Mood follows action. 

You have control over these physiological levers in your daily life. Don’t be shy. Try them!

Using Your Breath to Quickly Calm Yourself Down

Need to calm down quickly?

You can use your breath to interrupt the buildup of physical stress and tension in a few seconds

Forget the well intentioned advice to take a deep breath when you feel yourself getting upset. You need to do the opposite. You should take a deep exhale. More specifically, you should sigh deeply two or three times. 

As it turns out, a sigh is a fundamental life-sustaining reflex that acts as a way to inflate the tiny sacs in your lungs (the alveoli) where oxygen and carbon dioxide pass in and out of the blood, according to Jack Feldman, a neurobiologist at UCLA explains. It keeps our lungs working properly, and that’s why on average, our brain triggers a sigh about a dozen times per hour in humans. Periodic sighs bring in twice the volume of a normal breath and they serve as a “reset button” for your respiratory system. 

More than a regular sigh

Normal sighs happen unconsciously, but as it turns out, we also have another type of sigh that is hardwired into our system which can be used intentionally as an “off switch” to stress when you feel yourself getting frustrated and agitated. 

That sigh breath, which Dr. Huberman, a neuroscientist and professor at the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine calls a physiological sigh, is a bit different and is triggered automatically in people experiencing claustrophobia to induce calm, but they also happen during sleep or periodically during the day. 

But since we have voluntary control over our breath, it’s a breathing pattern that you can use as an instant tranquiliser anytime you need to calm down quickly. It’s a tool you have with you at all times and it takes less than a minute to do! 

The key this tool comes down to taking 2 quick inhales through your nose, followed by a slow exhale through the mouth. It is thought to promote the right balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in your lungs and bloodstream and activate the parasympathetic system, which will interrupt the upward spiral of stress and promote a sense of calm. 

How to use a physiological sigh to calm down quickly

  1. Inhale through your nose
  2. Top that first inhale with another quick inhale
  3. Exhale through your mouth slowly
  4. Repeat 3 times, and a minute or so later, you’ll feel calmer!

That’s it! It’s that simple.

If you want to see a demonstration from Andrew Huberman himself, check out his Instagram post below.

https://www.instagram.com/tv/CBjgVhXHdwF/

For a shorter version, you can take a look here: 

https://www.instagram.com/p/B-iajrGH-EO/

And if you find yourself in a constant state of stress, you might want to take a more comprehensive approach to your emotional state which I discussed in this article about fighting off stress and anxiety or sign up now for a complimentary “Success Now” session.

Photo by 傅甬 华 on Unsplash