Breathwork and Flow States Focus and Flow States

Breathwork for a laser focus

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About the author

This article was written by Flow Lab's Head of Content and MSc. psychologist Eva Siem. She studied at the University of Groningen (NL) and is specialized in the area of performance and motivational psychology. In her articles, she combines findings from psychological research with practical tips from her experience as mental fitness coach and workshop trainer.

How often do you catch yourself being distracted although you intended to work productively? If you fall into the average range, your brain is likely to be off task around 47% of the time (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). That’s almost half of your day! Most of the time, the reason for that is not the noisy colleague or the push notifications that pull you out of Flow. In fact, it’s our mental habit to distract ourselves.
 
Here is how breathwork can help you train your focus.


Distraction is a mental habit

 
In this digital world, push notifications, emails, and news feeds are constantly fighting for our attention. Even if the cell phone is just in the same room, our thoughts often circle around the messages waiting for us to be answered and we feel the permanent urge to give in to these distractions. We’ve become accustomed to a much higher level of mental stimulation. This also means that we get bored much faster when engaging in everyday activities. For example, we may have a hard time concentrating on a single task without checking our cell phones every few minutes or letting our minds wander.
 
It's not external distractions such as push notifications or emails that distract us. It's the urge to distract ourselves because we got so accustomed to constant overstimulation. Click To Tweet
 

Shallow breathing can decrease your focus

 
Apart from this mental habit, poor concentration may also result from a low oxygen level in the brain. If you’re familiar with food coma, you’ve experienced it yourself: Especially after a heavy meal, a lot of oxygen is used up for the digestive process. That’s why less oxygen is available for the brain. Same goes for shallow breathing. We breathe in less oxygen and may struggle to maintain our focus.
 
Breathwork can help you in at least two ways to improve your focus: by breathing in sufficient oxygen and by training your mind to focus on one thing at a time – your breath. (Read more about the science of breathing in this article).
 
Here are 3 breathwork techniques that you may give a try:
 

3 breathwork techniques for more focus and flow

 

Breathwork technique #1: Nose Breathing

 
Simple, but effective. Taking a deep, conscious breath through your nose is already a great start. Research has found that breathing through the nose (as opposed to the mouth) activates neurons in the amygdala and hippocampus, thereby strengthening brain performance and memory.
If you like, you can also combine it with a mindfulness exercise by observing how your breath flows in and out all by itself. Try this, for example, with our Flow Session “Deep Now”.
 

Breathwork technique #2: Box Breathing for focus and relaxation

 
Find the ideal balance between relaxation and focus needed for Flow with the Box Breathing technique: Inhale for 4 seconds, then hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and hold your breath again for 4 seconds. You can imagine a square, whose sides indicate the direction of your breath. Steady, long outbreaths active the parasympathetic nervous system which triggers a relaxation response. And a deep inhalation makes sure that your brain receives enough oxygen to be focused and productive. You can practice Box Breathing, for example, in our Flow Session “Calm Winds”.
 

Breathwork technique #3: Count your breaths for more focus

 
By counting your breaths, you can counteract the unproductive habit of mind-wandering.
You start by counting every inhalation and exhalation: You breathe in and count 1. You breathe out and count 2. In, 3. Out, 4 – you get the idea. And when you reach the count of 10, start from the beginning. Keep your full attention on your breathing. Whenever you notice that your mind begins to wander, simply notice that without judging it and consciously shift your focus back to your breathing. For a guided version, have a go at our Flow Session “Push Up Routine”.
If you’re advanced, you can spice it up a bit: Breathe in, count 1. Breathe out, count 2. Then start again and extend each round by one count: Breathe in, 1, breathe out, 2, breathe in 3. And again – start from the beginning and extend the round by one count. Whenever you lose track of the count, start from the beginning.
 
 
With regular practice, you’ll certainly reap the benefits. Because the brain is neuroplastic and strengthens the synaptic connections that are used more often. In other words, the more often you train with exercises like these, the easier it becomes to maintain your focus. (Same goes for distractions though: The more often you give in to mind-wandering, the more automated this habit becomes).
 
Breathwork is easily implementable: you don’t need much time or any tools. So put your headphones on and use your breath to become laser-focused!
 
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