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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 July 8, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

This is why setting priorities is so important.

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3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

1. Eat a Frog

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

2. Move Big Rocks

Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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3. Covey Quadrants

If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important but Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

    The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

    Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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    You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

    Getting to Know You

    Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

    In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

    These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

    More Tips for Effective Prioritization

    Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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