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7 ways to catch your breath

7 ways to catch your breath
Coming up for air

If you have ever been in trouble swimming in heavy surf you will know the sensation. You get dumped by one wave and get the air knocked out of you. You struggle to the surface and take another gasp, only to be hit by the next wave. Wave after wave pushes you under and you just can’t get free. You know that you could swim out or ride one in to save yourself, but the waves won’t give you give you a chance. All you really need is a break – to catch you breath – and you will be OK. Isn’t that how the rest of your life feels sometimes as well?

When life leaves you gasping for air there are ways to catch your breath, but they seem impossibly distant at the time. When you are in the middle of trouble, just trying to survive, solutions seem out of reach. The best you can do is prepare yourself in advance by learning these 7 ways to catch your breath, before you need to use them:

  1. Run down your reserves – We all have reserves stored up in our lives and now is the time to use them up. You might eat out your pantry or freezer, saving time and money. You might forget the housework for a while knowing that your normal cleaning has kept things under control enough to last a few days. You might call in some favours that you have stored up. You might cut into a corner of your savings or “rainy day fund”. Reserves like these are only good if you know when to use them and this may be the time.
  2. Lean on your friends True friends are obvious in bad times. The best friends support you without contributing to the problems. Lean on them a little and show them that you trust them. Lean on their advice, their time, their wallet, their help. How much you lean will depend on how serious your situation, how strong the friendship and how much dependency you can stand. If all you need is to catch your breath, you should not be hesitant to ask your friends for support (then be willing to do the same for them later)
  3. Tear off half your to-do list – Realistically half of your to-do list is essential and half is optional. Sure, you want to get it all done, but in this case sticking to just the essentials, will leave you with spare time to catch your breath. Tear off the items that are not absolutely essential in this couple of days. Most tasks will still be there later when you come back for them. Give yourself a break from your “get it done” attitude and you will soon be back on top.
  4. Ask for mercy – No matter where the waves are coming from there is someone, somewhere who can give you mercy if only you ask for it. You should not feel bad about asking for a break just to get you through a short bad patch. If you owe money, be honest up front and ask for an extension (people will usually agree – machines will usually not). If you owe time, ask whoever demands it, to be lenient for a couple of days. If you need to jump the cue at the doctors, ask for mercy. Explain what you need, why you need it and how they can help. You will be surprised how many people will willingly help you if you make a personal request and explain why.
  5. Think long term survival first – Your problems will quickly escalate if you don’t know what to focus on. You must attend to your most important needs first. If you are in the surf, you need air. In the rest of your life, you need at least your minimum sleep, food, water. Don’t take uncharacteristic risks. Keep your eyes on the road when you are driving. Now is not the time to play with chemical dependencies. Make sure you look after the basics of long term survival because otherwise a short term bad patch could end up crippling you for life.
  6. Downgrade your expectations but mark your place – When you are in the middle of it, you may have to cut back on your achievements. Put your progress on hold for a couple of days and concentrate on catching your breath. If it is not essential, it can wait till you are back on your feet. However, before you stop doing something, mark where you are up to so that you can quickly get back on track later. Measure, bookmark, photograph, write down where you are today, so that you can pick up where you left off later.
  7. Take one step at a time and do one thing at a time – When there are different pressures rolling in from all directions it is easy to try and do too many things at once. Don’t do it. Focus on one thing and knock it off. Then move onto the next. You will find that by doing one thing at a time, you are able to achieve more and get out of trouble faster than if you tried to accomplish everything at once. There is nothing that makes a bad situation feel worse than having too many half finished things on your mind at once.

Nobody ever caught their breath by just continuing to struggle. Whether you are facing an unending set of waves or the continual beating of bad times in your life, all you need is a break. If you can find a moment of peace, high up on top of a wave, you will probably see your way out. All you really need is to catch your breath.

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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