Just about every personal growth analogy can be traced back to surfing. One of the most powerful comes from surfing’s most essential task: riding waves.
When you’re on the water, waves don’t come when you want them to. They rise and crash according to forces beyond your control. As a surfer, you don’t create the waves. You put yourself in the right position so that when they come, you can ride them.
Many of the world’s most successful people treat time management the same way. Rather than setting up rigid schedules where they have to do certain things at certain times, they build unoccupied time into their days. When those open blocks of time — waves — come, they can ride them however they want.
Maybe they’re in an analytical frame of mind, and they can assess business objectives. Maybe they’re feeling creative, and they can do some future-crafting. Or, maybe they’re drained, and they can use the time to do something restorative.
Rather than forcing a certain type of task, they assess their mental/emotional/energetic state and ride the wave accordingly.
This kind of approach doesn’t come naturally to everyone. I should know — I’ve been practicing it for the past six months or so, and it’s still a struggle. But I’ve discovered some techniques that make it much easier.
Riding waves starts with three micro-habits:
1. Develop your body awareness.
Being able to ride waves starts with being able to ground yourself mentally. That grounding process is essentially meditation — which is why it can be tricky. Many people get frustrated with meditation because they think they’re supposed to not think, to silence their minds.
Meditation isn’t about silencing your mind. It’s about directing your mind. One of the best, easiest ways to do this is to send your awareness into your body.
For example, during stressful meetings, I’ll send my awareness into my legs. Why my legs? Because like many people, when I get anxious or annoyed, my legs start to shake. Rather than letting them shake and letting my anxiety grow, I center my mind on the shaking. When I watch it, it stops naturally, and then has a cascading effect on the fight-or-flight response developing in my body.
Different people register stress in different parts of the body — shoulders, hands, browline. When anxiety bubbles up, send your mind into that location, and turn physical tension into relaxation. The more you practice this habit, the more you’ll do it naturally.
2. Focus on your breath.
An abundance of research has determined that breathwork can help invoke the body’s relaxation response. This lets you see the truth of a situation, rather than just your emotional response to it.
The breath trick one I use most frequently is the 2x Breath, where the exhale is twice as long as the inhale. I breathe in for two counts, then out for four counts. Then, I breathe in for three counts, and out for six. Then in for four, out for eight. I always do this at the beginning and end of my day, and sometimes in moments of high anxiety.
3. Move around.
Body awareness and breathing are both habits you can develop at your desk. Level three, movement, is one that requires you to step away from your work.
There are plenty of different ways you can build movement into your day. Mark Sisson advocates for microworkouts: “dropping for a single set of deep squats in the office, hitting a set of max-effort pull-ups…or stocking your backyard with a hex deadlift bar or bench press and busting out a single set every time you pass by.”
That’s a pretty high-level movement practice. For people just getting started, I recommend the most elemental movement of all: walking.
By “walking,” I don’t mean listening to a podcast, taking calls, or checking your phone. Just walking. In Zen Buddhism, meditation is both a sitting and a walking practice. You watch where your mind goes, and if it goes astray, you use the first two techniques to bring it back.
The great thing about walking is that it gives your body a mechanical task to focus on, thereby freeing up your mind. It’s one way to activate a neural network that only “comes online” when the mind is unoccupied.
What happens when you do this right?
Combining all three habits gives you a chance to audit your energetic state. To borrow a phrase from the Conscious Leadership Group, it shows you whether you’re above the line or below the line. “Above” means you’re open, curious, expansive. “Below” means you’re closed, committed to being right, contractive. When you’re below the line, you’re working against yourself, and what you produce is therefore low-quality. When you’re above, it’s just the opposite.
Increase productivity by “dropping into” the right activities. Understanding your energetic state lets you act on it, not against it. By understanding your present condition, you can tell whether you’re in an analytical, creative, or drained frame of mind. You can use this information to drop into the right type of task — not force a type of work that you’re not ready for.
Go from “Do→Have→Be” to “Be→Do→Have.” Our culture conditions us to think in terms of doing things, in order to have things, so that we can become things. For example: Start a company (do) → earn money/make an impact (have) → become a successful founder (be).
As we all know, doing and having things doesn’t change who you are. You’re always yourself. Starting with “Be” — developing your self-understanding — allows you to do the right things, and ultimately have things that make you happy. As opposed to the above, that would mean: Understand your strengths and passions (be) → pursue a career that lets you use them (do) → develop a satisfying life (have).
Rather than being pulled around by your emotions, these habits let you see them as they are and make a conscious choice about how to proceed. Like the waves in the sea, you can’t always control your energy. But you can turn it into a hell of a ride.