Peter Bregman’s new book has a great title: Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want.
The book is a collection of essays, loosely organized, and all valuable. I got a lot out of it, in part because I used a process of “seeing for myself” as I read. Let me explain how that works, using the title essay, “Four Seconds,” as an example.
Bregman’s generalized point in that essay is an established one–that you need to pause when you feel a distracting impulse. Pause, so you can choose differently. This is the essence of self-control.
But Bregman doesn’t just say, “pause.” He says, “Pause. Breathe. Course Correct.” How long do you pause? Four seconds–“the time it takes to take one breath in, one breath out.”
When I first read this, I liked the idea of timing my pause. So, I decided to see for myself how his advice worked.
Surprise! I discovered that when I tell myself to “pause,” I often hold my breath. I needed to make a conscious choice to breathe in and out. And that seemed to make it easier to decide what to do.
In retrospect, when you hold your breath, your body tenses and your attention is drawn to anticipating your next inhale. This is distracting. You can’t think very well in this state.
To test this idea, I tried to do a random math problem while holding my breath. The problem was: 289 divided by 17. I got 11 remainder 2. Only after I started breathing again, and redid the calculation in my head, did I realize my mistake. (The answer is 17. I never memorized the perfect squares, or this would have been too easy.)
My conclusion? When you breath in and out, your body relaxes, your attention is freed, and you can maintain normal activity, including normal cognitive activity.
This is not Bregman’s point, but it was a terrific insight for me, which integrated things I already knew with what he was saying.
My point is that if you’re reading step-by-step advice, from a clear, firsthanded book (such as Bregman’s), try it out. See for yourself. This is how you understand, integrate, and retain the best such a book has to offer.
Oh yes, and P.S. don’t hold your breath while you’re trying to think…or do math problems.
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