Inhale and Exhale Days

Tags: academia, musings, programming

Published on
« Previous post: Human in the Gaps: Thriving in the New … — Next post: Remembering My Grandfather »

During my undergraduate and graduate studies, I often took on additional summer jobs in IT to enlarge my budget. While this got me exposed to some cool technologies and I always had great teams that made sure I knew that I could take some time to learn stuff on the job, I always felt slightly uneasy coming into work being paid to ‘just’ read.1 I would rather ‘be productive,’ churning out code, test cases, or auxiliary maintenance scripts. This attitude stuck with me, unfortunately, so that even during my Ph.D., I at first felt extreme guilt when reading papers instead of writing them.2

Luckily, being prone to too much introspection at any given day of the week, I managed to observe a pattern in my ‘reading versus writing’ dilemma: I had periods of time where I was exhibiting a voracious appetite for reading tutorials about programming languages, essays on coding style, academic papers, and much more. At other periods, I was highly productive in writing code, creating illustrations, proofs, or laying the groundwork for the next publication. I started referring to these periods as ‘inhale days’ and ‘exhale days,’ respectively.3

‘Inhaling’ was thus tantamount to learning about the world, about your field, about a certain technique, etc. In short: it was about getting inspired and creative. ‘Exhaling,’ on the other hand, was fundamentally about creating something new. Interestingly, the activities of a specific period are not always synchronised with a specific goal in mind. For instance, I kept getting stumped by the properties of certain Markov chain, but during the next ‘inhale day,’ I read papers on Lie groups—a topic that I am interested in but that is not pertinent to my Markov chain problems. The next ’exhale day’ saw me solving my problem, since it turned out that I just needed to mull the solution over in my subconscious.

I have to stress that it does not always work this way for me. Inhale days are not meant to distract my mind from a pressing problem, I rather see them as collecting new ideas for the future while I slowly regain the energy I need for putting out new things into the world.

This attitude allowed me to finally resolve the guilt I had always felt, not only in my work life but in my personal life as well. I now compare ‘inhale days’ to days where I rather prefer to consume, and ’exhale days’ to days where I am better at producing. If these terms sound too much like work, I find ‘input’ and ‘output’ to be equally useful—or ‘inhaling’ and ’exhaling,’ as it were.

I made two important discoveries about myself that made me stick with this terminology:

  1. Both types of days are important, just as inhaling and exhaling are both necessary and ‘dual’ to each other.

  2. I cannot do both types of activities well at the same time, just like I can either inhale or exhale but not both.4

The first point sounds like bromide, but it really helped me feel at ease again. The second point does not mean that I cannot read papers on a day where I am supposed to write things, but rather that there are periods in which I am much more adept at, say, extracting insights or being inspired by an existing work than generating good novel ideas on my own. Understanding the current phase my brain is in has provided me with improved energy levels for the things I apparently want to do while not feeling any unease about the ‘dual’ activity I am missing out on.

I am sure that many of us in different professions and with different vocations might feel similarly, so I hope that by naming these concepts, I can contribute to a more positive state of mind. Next time, when things do not go your way, it may be that you are trying to exhale when you should be inhaling or vice versa.

To balance—until next time!

  1. I am using the air quotes to already hint at my fallacious reasoning. ↩︎

  2. The situation was also not helped by the fact that I did not know what was expected of me. My brother and I were the first in my family to undertake postgraduate studies. ↩︎

  3. These periods do not necessarily have to be aligned with days, but I find the term ‘inhale period’ to be somewhat unwieldy. ↩︎

  4. Cue the incoming analogies about circular breating↩︎