Because your breath is always with you, breathing exercises are perhaps the easiest habit you can build into your life for better health and wellness.
However, as you’ve probably experienced, adding a new self-care practice into your daily routine is not always easy.
Fortunately, there are some simple, science-backed tools (that actually work) for incorporating breathing into your everyday life. And happily, these tools do not rely on sheer discipline and determination. They simply rely on proper design. Let’s look at how.
The General Idea: Action Prompts and If/Then Statements
As an adult, you probably wouldn’t be upset if you couldn’t ride a toddler’s bicycle—it wasn’t designed for you. However, at the same time, most of us have probably gotten upset when we failed to implement a new health habit we hoped to do. But the problem might be the same: the wrong design.
When designed correctly, performing a new habit (like daily breathing exercises) should be easy and rewarding. And the two simplest tools for proper design are (1) action prompts and (2) if/then statements.
Action prompts come from Stanford behavior expert BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits. As the name suggests, an action prompt relies on action to remind you to do your desired behavior. Here’s an example of breathing to help drive it home.
Let’s say you set the alarm to tell you to “breathe” at 7:30 a.m. every morning. It seems like a good reminder, but then it goes off one morning, and you’re not in the right place to do your practice yet. In that case, you might ignore it until later—and then forget (guilty here).
Here’s how an action prompt could fix that. Instead of an alarm, you could use starting the coffee as your reminder to do your breathing. Every time you push the button to start brewing, that’s your cue to begin your practice while it’s brewing. Then, no matter when you wake up or start the coffee, you’ll still have the same prompt to trigger your breath practice.
Once you have your unique action prompt, write out an if/then statement by hand to make it stick. Here’s an example, sticking with the coffee idea:
If I start brewing the coffee, then I do 5 minutes of breathing.
Most importantly: Design the action prompts and if/then statements around your realistic day, not a fantasy of what you wish your day looked like.
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions to get you started practicing breathwork.
A Great Starting Place: AM & PM Bookends
When it comes to a breathing practice, the two best places to use action prompts and if/then statements are to bookend your day in the morning and evening.
For example, pick your most desirable breathing practice—the one you want to do the most—and add it to your AM if/then statement. (If you’re unsure which one you want, here are 5 excellent ones to choose from.)
If evenings work better for you, use the same approach for your PM bedtime routine.
Getting Extra Breathing Time during the Day
Recall from the introduction that a beautiful thing about breathing is that it’s always there. Thus, when you find extra time here and there, you can easily incorporate it into your daily activities.
To make it more likely you’ll follow through, write it down by hand. For example, write, “If I get 2 extra unplanned free minutes today, then I will breathe slowly and deeply for those two minutes.” Or, “In between each task I do today, I will take one conscious Centering Breath.”
Of course, you’ll forget sometimes, and it won’t always work, but writing it down and planning ahead will set you up for success. And again, make sure you choose activities you regularly perform to prompt these “unplanned” breathing breaks.
A final convenient way to incorporate breathing into your daily activities is breathwalking. Breathwalking involves counting your steps with your breath. For example, inhale for four or eight steps and exhale for four or eight steps.
Because breathwalking involves physical movement, breathing, and focus, it’s both energizing and meditative. Best of all, it doesn’t require any equipment, and no one will ever know you’re doing it.
Try it while walking around the office or when walking to/from your car in the parking lot. If you use public transportation, look for additional opportunities to pair your breath with your steps during your commute. This practice will allow you to elevate your energy and mood throughout the day.
To summarize, to successfully incorporate breathing (or any new health habit) into your life, use proper design, not discipline. Specifically, use action prompts and if/then statements to make performing your new habit effortless and rewarding.
Enjoy consistently using the power of the breath throughout your day!
About the Author
Nick Heath, PhD, is an atmospheric scientist, breathing researcher, Oxygen Advantage coach, and type-1 diabetic. His work focuses on optimal breathing for diabetes, chronic disease, and overall health and wellness. Learn more at thebreathingdiabetic.com or follow Nick on Instagram.