Raising Your Baseline

In practicing the slow, shallow breathing approach from The Oxygen Advantage that I shared about during the past two days, I’m grasping that the key to this approach is to define a new baseline for my breathing and then keep synching back to that new baseline whenever I catch myself drifting from it.

The initial temptation is to sync back to my old way of breathing, which can happen automatically when I lose awareness of my breath. Then I might catch myself and practice consciously reducing my breath so I’m not over-breathing.

An aspect of this change that’s easier to catch is when I moderately exert myself for a short burst, like walking up a flight of stairs. My breathing becomes a little heavier afterwards, so I make a conscious effort to bring it back down quickly, ideally within no more than 2-3 breaths.

So it’s like I have a breathing budget, and I’m doing my best not to squander it. My budget for air this week is much lower than it was last week. And next week I’ll try to nudge it even lower.

I realized that a similar strategy also works for adjusting our emotional baselines.

Suppose you often feel depressed, frustrated, angry, anxious, or some other emotion you’d prefer not to feel so much. Pretend that you’ve suddenly been allocated a lower budget for feeling negative emotions, and you have to be careful not to squander it too quickly.

Imagine if life dramatically cut your negative emotion budget by saying: Henceforth you’re only allowed to spend half as much time in negative emotion territory.

How would you obey this mandate?

You need two pieces to succeed here:

  1. Frequent check-ins with yourself to see how you’re doing
  2. A quick recovery strategy to shift from the old behavior to the new one

Whenever you catch yourself experiencing some negative emotion, you must leave that territory and return to a positive or neutral baseline as quickly as possible. Otherwise you’ll squander your negative emotion budget too quickly.

Do you already have such a strategy? Do you know how to quickly shift yourself back to neutral or positive emotional territory? Can you do this within a few breaths?

If you don’t have such a method, then finding one ought to be a key strategic piece for raising your baseline. Being aware of negative emotions isn’t enough – you’ve also got to change them.

To practice reducing my breathing immediately when it’s too rapid, I do the opposite of the unwanted behavior. I deliberately slow down. I can’t breathe slowly and quickly at the same time, so by doing what’s incompatible with rapid breathing, I stop the rapid breathing.

It’s much the same with negative emotion. What’s incompatible with negative emotion? Positive emotion. So if you do something – anything – that makes you feel good within seconds, the negative emotion has to drop off. It can’t hang around while you’re feeling good.

Then the long-term challenge is to habitualize this recovery pattern by always practicing it at every possible opportunity.

I’m doing my best to not let myself over-breathe. Whenever I notice that I’m doing that, I immediately take conscious control of my breathing and slow it down. If I don’t do this, my baseline won’t shift, and I won’t really get to test and experience the results on the other side.

Initially you may have to consciously take control a lot – like dozens of times per day – but if you stay as consistent as you can, you’ll raise your baseline, and the new behavior pattern will become your new default.

Where else could you apply this idea? You could use it for productivity habits, eating habits, early rising, and lots of other areas of life. The key is to develop a rapid strategy for shifting your behavior in a way that’s incompatible with your old baseline. Then apply that shifting behavior every time you catch yourself running the old pattern.

To really create an effective change, the old behavioral baseline must become unacceptable for you. In order to progress to a new baseline, you must eventually regard your old baseline as out of bounds and below standard, even if it still feels normal. This is a simple approach I’ve used repeatedly times for doing personal growth experiments and also for making long-term changes. To embrace the new, there must be some willingness to say: The old behavior is dead to me.