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by Michael Townsend Williams
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With its emphasis on restoring your mental health through a return to the basic health practices of life, Do/Breathe (2015) is not your typical self-help book. Abandoning prescriptive or pressuring models of personal development, Do/Breathe invites readers to take a relaxing step back to the basics of human existence and address our most fundamental needs: eating, breathing, and sleeping. By offering a simple and relaxing guide to promoting work/life balance, Michael Townsend Williams’ research presents a new way to hone your focus and be present and at peace in your everyday life.
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"Do/Breathe" Summary
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Summary by Alyssa Burnette. Audiobook narrated by Alex Smith
Life can often feel like a constant balancing act. On the occasions when we get that balance right, everything seems smooth and in order. But the moment one toe slips off the tightrope, our personal and professional lives seem to fall into immediate disarray. And the pressure to maintain that delicate balance — along with the fear and stress of getting it wrong — often actively disrupts our balancing act, leading us to feel overwhelmed and overcommitted. Although many of us spend our entire lives that way, bouncing from one crisis to another, the good news is that no one has to live like that! In fact, the key to achieving your optimum balance is simple: we just have to go back to balancing the basics.
So, in this summary, you’ll learn:
  • How to cope with information overload
  • A secret productivity hack used by Winston Churchill and
  • Why 40% of your decisions are made subconsciousl
Chapter 1: Simple Steps for Stress Management
Stress is all around us. All it takes is one delayed traffic light, one email which doesn’t load fast enough, or one notification too many and we can start to lose our cool. Although we all have different stressors, our physiological responses are the same in that they release the stress hormone cortisol into our bloodstream and increase our heart rate and blood pressure. When this happens, it can be easy to get caught up in a spiral of stress, but would you believe that reducing your stress can be as simple as breathing in and out? That sounds almost insultingly easy, but there’s actually some science behind it. Because when you’re stressed, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Relaxed breathing, on the other hand, is characterized by breaths which are long, deep, and slow. And because our breathing patterns are a reflection of our mental state, they can be used to change our mentalities as well.
When we actively practice relaxed breathing during moments of stress, we can literally trick our bodies into believing we’re relaxed. And as an added bonus, taking long, slow breaths over a period of 60 seconds is actually enough to rid our bloodstream of the cortisol hormone entirely! So, while that doesn’t mean you have to learn how to breathe again, it does mean that you may need to get in touch with your relaxed breathing practices from an earlier time. You might know what this looks like if you’ve ever watched a baby breathe. Babies inhale through their nose, which fills their bellies with breath. They then exhale through their nose for longer than they inhaled. And although there are a number of babyish practices we should grow out of, this actually isn’t one of them!
So, especially for stress management purposes, you should concentrate on breathing like a baby. Begin by being intentional about your breathing and make an active effort to breathe in and out through your nose instead of your mouth. Feel your belly and diaphragm filling up with air and concentrate on the centered feeling of calm and control this motion gives you. And remember to breathe out for longer than you breathe in.
Chapter 2: The Only Productivity Hack You’ll Ever Need
With the prevalence of bullet journals, productivity apps, and online to-do lists, it feels like it’s never been easier to get our lives together. But although these apps and organization tools tout useful values like efficiency, they’re not always the answer. In fact, sometimes having too many conflicting sources of input can contribute to our chaos! So, if you want to truly boost your productivity, you need to start by streamlining your organizational inputs. And that means simplifying.
For example, if you receive important emails at three different addresses, can you consolidate them by diverting all your emails to one centralized account? If you feel overwhelmed by the amount of emails you’re receiving, can you try sorting them into specific folders within your inbox? Similarly, if you get both paper and online bank statements, there’s no need to receive both; pick one and cancel the other, then develop a basic filing system for organizing your statements. You can do the same with information overload in relation to social media. Because if you’re tagged in a post on Facebook and you receive notifications on both your Facebook app and your email app, that’s one notification too many. So, start by purging all non-essential notifications and eliminating overlap.
You can do the same in your real life by developing an old-school filing system for any important papers you have. Although we are attempting to live in a paperless world, we haven’t fully made the transition yet, so make sure that you’re keeping track of any critical paper documents while you’re streamlining your digital life as well. And finally, another key step is optimizing your to-do list. Be intentional about your system of note-taking and avoid the confusion of one-word notes. For example, if you’re making a note about filing your taxes, don’t simply write “tax.” Instead, be specific and write “file taxes today.”
Taking that specificity one step further by placing your notes in context can also help. Are you going to file your taxes online? Do you need to go to an accountant’s office? Whatever your task encompasses, write down all the relevant details so that your original “tax” notation becomes “file taxes today — email accountant re: forms.” Takingsteps toward simplicity won’t just make your life and to-do list easier, it will reduce your mental clutter and sense of stress as well.
Chapter 3: Face Your Fears
What are you afraid of? Whether it’s spiders, heights, or public speaking, we’re all afraid of something. And although we might not admit it, those fears often hold us back from pursuing what we really want in life. Sometimes we hesitate to apply for that job or pursue that opportunity because we fear failure or humiliation or being told that we’re not good enough. And those fears are perfectly understandable — but they also shouldn’t be allowed to get in our way. So, how do we fight them? Well, as you might imagine, the first step is changing our mindset. Psychologist Carol Dweck posits that when it comes to learning or trying new things, everyone has either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.
These mindsets are instrumental in determining our approach to life because a fixed mindset promotes results-driven thinking, while a growth mindset is geared toward a task’s process rather than its outcome. For example, if you have a fixed mindset and you’re unsuccessful when you attempt a task, you might get defeated and assume that you’ll never be successful. But a growth mindset understands that failure shouldn’t be feared; rather, it’s simply a part of the process and therefore, doesn’t have to hold us back. So, if you have a fixed mindset and you’d like to get rid of it, the great news is that there’s nothing “fixed” or permanent about it. You can learn to cultivate a growth mindset any time you like and it’s not even that hard to do!
One helpful starting point is to adjust your expectations. Unrealistic — and discouraging — expectations are common to a growth mindset and as such, that’s the first thing you want to eliminate. So, if you want to write a book, don’t start by assuming that you’re going to craft the next great American novel in six months. Instead, start with the simple goal of challenging that blank page today and then tackling it again tomorrow. Word by word, day by day, reach for your goal at a realistic pace. Removing unhealthy expectations from a task is the best way to free yourself up to accomplish it. And the more you work slowly and steadily, the more you’ll be able to appreciate your progress instead of fearing your potential failure.
Chapter 4: Learn to Live in the Moment
That title might sound cheesy at first, but when you think of it in the context of an Emily Dickinson poem, it sounds a little more profound. Because Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Forever is composed of nows,” and that’s such a beautiful, poetic way of looking at our lives. Sadly, however, the reality of our lives isn’t always so poetic. Instead, we have an unfortunate tendency to spend our “nows” worrying about the past, the present,and the future. Or even worse, we while away our “nows” by scrolling through social media, lost in a digital world while the real one passes us by. But what if we could transcend those sad tendencies? What if we could relinquish our worries and anxieties and be truly present in the moment?
The great news is that we can! We can cultivate our engagement with the present through practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is a form of meditation and it focuses on developing your self-awareness and your perception of the present moment. By cultivating a state of relaxed attention, accepting your thoughts without judgment or anxiety, you can achieve a state of soft focus and acceptance. Rather than being angry with yourself for the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing or attempting to repress them, simply concentrate on breathing in and out and acknowledge the thoughts that come. As your peaceful breathing patterns enable you to develop a sense of calm and clarity, you can assess your situation with a fresh perspective and make an informed decision about how you will respond to your thoughts and feelings.
The best part about mindfulness is that it isn’t hard to develop and it can be practiced anywhere. You can incorporate it into any part of your daily routine by realizing that even the most ordinary task presents you with an opportunity for mindfulness. So, before you move on to the next chapter, ask yourself what tasks you can perform mindfully today.
Chapter 5: Your Mental and Physical Health Are Connected
As you contemplate your future practice of mindfulness, you should also consider your own mental and physical health. How mindful are you about those? Are you considerate of your body’s resources or do you take an almost masochistic pleasure in pushing yourself beyond your limits? Many of us fall into the latter category, depleting our energy with no regard to the long-term havoc we’re wreaking on our bodies. And any time we drink to relax instead of engaging in self care or push ourselves to function without sleep, we’re destroying our physical and mental health.
As you might imagine, this is precisely the opposite of what Williams’ do/breathe method advocates and it’s completely at odds with mindfulness! In fact, these toxic practices stand in such stark opposition to everything we’ve discussed in this book that there’s no point in pursuing any additional healthy practices if you intend to sabotage them thusly. So, during this chapter, take a moment to evaluate your habits and ask yourself if you’re willing to make a genuine commitment to self-improvement by truly caring for your body and mind. If you are, you should approach your journey with the mantra, “A healthy body is the key to a calm, uncluttered mind.”
So, how do we start taking care of our bodies? Well, because sleep deprivation is one of the most common human ailments, combating poor sleep practices should be your first step. And because you should actually get one hour of sleep for every two hours you’re awake, it’s time to top up your sleep balance. That’s where Winston Churchill’s primary productivity hack comes in. It might surprise you, but Churchill was actually a proud power-nap enthusiast! He even appreciated them so much that he proclaimed them to be the number-one secret to his productivity! So, if you want to be more like Churchill, hop on the power nap train! Instead of resorting to coffee for a quick energy fix, find some time throughout the day where you can grab a quick thirty-minute power nap (without getting in trouble at work or school!)
Chapter 6: Final Summary
Often, it feels as though our lives are consumed by stress. The accessibility of technology allows us to bring our work home with us and stay updated on the go, but unfortunately, this also means that we’re constantly suffering from information overload. And as our stress rises, our ability to keep calm and stay organized decreases. But by returning to the simple, basic functions of life — like remembering to breathe and sleep — we can cultivate healthy habits and learn to holistically simplify our lives.

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