By Katie Bucklen, MD, FAAP, Mindfulness Instructor
“If you’re having trouble finding time to meditate, it’s not you, it’s your system.”–Atomic Habits, James Clear
The benefits of mindfulness occur when we practice regularly, and, in most cases, positive changes begin to take place even if we never sit for formal meditation practice. However, the enjoyment of mindfulness becomes more vivid when we find the tranquility of a dedicated meditation practice that allows us time to slow down and just be. In particular, the feeling of relaxation, deep concentration and physical stillness are both gratifying in the moment and meaningful in helping us to live our lives with reduced stress, increased patience, and the enjoyment of being present with friends and family.
Many of us strive to build a consistent practice that includes deep meditation because it can be such a positive experience. However, life’s obligations often only afford us time for occasional mindful moments during the day or brief meditations that feel rushed and less relaxing. This cycle can often lead us to feel guilty, or disappointed in our practice, which in turn diminishes the satisfaction we can derive from mindfulness.
There is good evidence that increasing the time we spend in meditation, mindful movement, or informal practice is what helps us become more mindful. Interestingly, creating the habit of meditating every day requires a different set of priorities. A slight shift in focus for your practice could help you to settle into a satisfying routine starting right away.
James Clear’s excellent book Atomic Habits offers a clear format for behavior change and habit creation. The techniques he teaches can be readily applied to build new habits (and to rid yourself of those you don’t like so much) to create a consistent and satisfying meditation practice.
Here are five methods for turning your meditation practice into a well-loved habit:
Make it Obvious – Cue your mind to remember, and even crave, meditation
- Create an audible cue by using an app on your phone to set a Mindful Bell (or two) to chime at the time you plan to meditate. Here is an app for this.
- Set a visual cue such as a soft folded blanket or a beautiful picture in the place where you usually meditate. When you see it, it will remind you how beautiful and inviting meditation is.
- Create a context that serves as a meditation cue by, as much as possible, meditating in the same place and at the same time every day – especially for the first month while you are building your habit. Over time, just passing that place in your house will draw you to meditate.
Make it Attractive – Pair existing, enjoyable, habits with your meditation habit
- Bundle your meditation time with something else you want to do. For example, ‘After meditation, I will watch TV’ or ‘After my morning coffee, I will meditate.’
- Seek out communities or meditation groups where you are surrounded by people who meditate. Enhance the benefit by seeking out people you respect or really enjoy.
Make it Easy – Streamline your practice through consistency and focus. No set-up or decision making required
- Simplify meditation by having everything you need readily available. For example:
- If you listen to recorded meditations, pick one per week and repeat it every day so you don’t spend your meditation time deciding what to listen to.
- Or, set a timer for 30 minutes with starting and ending bells instead of listening to a recording.
- Keep a timer and, if needed, your headphones in the place where you meditate.
- While you are building your meditation habit, keep your practice consistent, repeating it without worrying about making it better. If you practice every day for 2-3 weeks, the habit will grow stronger; it will be encoded in your brain. For example:
- If you haven’t set up a regular practice location and time, consider why you haven’t. Are you planning to buy a meditation cushion and incense to decorate and create a tranquil location in your home before you get started? Mindfully attend to what you really need. Perhaps just grab a blanket and some pillows that you already have and get started. You can add the new cushion and incense at a later date if you wish.
Pro tip: If you meditate regularly in the same place, that place will become tranquil on its own when you meditate there. No purchase necessary.
- When it’s time to practice, get yourself started by focusing on the first two minutes only. For example, if the goal is to meditate for 30 minutes a day, say to yourself, “I will go to my meditation spot and sit and just breathe for 2 minutes.” This will help you handle distractions that draw you away from your goal. After the first 2 minutes, see if you can then settle into a full meditation. Even if you don’t complete the full goal, you still took the steps needed to encode the habit in your brain, which means you are still making progress towards the goal.
Make it Satisfying – Reward yourself right away & track your progress to increase your enjoyment of the practice
- Reward yourself right after meditation with a pleasurable moment by sending loving kindness to someone you love or do some gentle, mindful movement that feels nice but is not a workout.
- Track progress in a visible way so that you can see your accomplishments and anticipate a reward. Here are some examples of simple ways to give yourself small but immediate surges of enjoyment that will then be associated with meditation:
- Place a clear jar on your desk, and put a colorful marble in it every time you finish a meditation.
- Put a dollar into a vacation fund account for every day you practice. You can give yourself a bonus for consecutive days or longer meditation.
- Create a meditation calendar or use an online meditation tracker to see your progress and to help you avoid missing a day. (Most meditation apps will track your practice.)
Pro tip: Immediate rewards are most satisfying, so do your stretching or add your marble right after you finish.
Break the Habit of Not Meditating – Mindfully inquire about what stops you
- What areas of your life or mindset might be contributing to a habit of not meditating?
- Do you feel that you have to skip your planned meditation to complete just one more task at work because it is really stressing you out?
- Consider how your stress level might change if you stick to your planned meditation instead.
As you ponder these questions, get in touch with your beginner’s mind, trust yourself and remember the importance of non-judgement and patience as you work towards establishing your meditation habit. There are alot of forces in the world that push us away from mindfulness and towards a rushed and stressful life. You are not alone if establishing a regular meditation practice has been a challenge. There will be ups and downs still, but making meditation a habit is both possible and very satisfying.
If you are new to mindfulness meditation, Dr. Bucklen teaches the Introduction to Mindfulness course which is enrolling now. Establishing a consistent meditation practice is an important component of this course.