“This year I’m going to start meditating regularly.”
It sounds good, but in the real world we rarely follow through.
Maybe we meditate a few times and nothing exciting happens. Or we make some progress. But after a few days, a week, a month, we stop. It doesn’t become a regular part of our life.
It doesn’t become a habit.
If you want to get the benefits of meditation, talking about it with friends, reading about it on Facebook and Reddit, and meditating “every so often” is not going to cut it.
It’s time to start thinking about how to turn it into a habit, robust enough for the long run. We know meditation is a practice much like exercise (it only works if done consistently) – so treat it that way!
Today we’re going to abolish the casual: “ughh, I need to meditate more.” If you ever expected to evolve from a Facebook-addicted mind to a Zen master in a matter of weeks, this article is for you.
Meditation is amazing – it rewires our brain, literally building gray matter and undoing years of conditioning.
That’s why today I’m going to give you a blueprint to actually make meditation a part of your life.
Make Meditation Stick
We are just primates with self-awareness. Our brains and minds are these amalgamations of evolution – flawed, complex, and weird.
But we can leverage this weirdness, exploit its flaws and make them work in our favor. Using best practices from behavorial psychology, we can turn the forces behind advertising, video games, and Facebook to our favor, making our minds work for us.
Below is a blueprint to making meditation stick. It’s not about working harder, but instead putting some smart plans in place to make each and every meditation session feel natural – like this is what you’re supposed to do now.
Once you have established the habit of meditation, you should begin to drop many of these strategies away, allowing your practice to grow organically. Without further ado:
Step 1: Start small and build in progress from the start.
This is the obvious one, but crucial: Thinking about meditating tomorrow for 30 minutes when you can hardly sit for 2 seconds sounds excruciating. Already your brain is calculating all that system 2 willpower it has to spend, and it’s getting tired from just thinking about it.
And then, somehow, you never make it to that session.
Instead, tell yourself you only have to meditate for either 2 or 5 minutes (feel free to go longer if you’re feeling it).
But here’s the kicker: You don’t get to stay there for months and months. Instead, plan from the start to raise your minimum time incrementally every week. Even if it’s just by 1 minute a day.
If you are on the fence about whether you’re ready to add more time, just do it and see how it goes. If you’ve been meditating for 2 minutes a day for two weeks, it’s time to level up.
Step 2: Attach it to an existing habit.
Habits allow your system 1 (the automatic mind) to do complex tasks with minimal brainpower (driving, brushing your teeth). But when you form a new habit, system 2 is required to come in and make it happen.
This is why it feels laborious, effortful, and tiring. Like that feeling you get when you have to do large mental math. “Ugh.”
Remember when you used to build sand castles as a kid (or last week, who am I kidding) and you dug out tunnels to vent the water away from your castle? Forming a habit is a bit like that – the forming the habit part takes effort, but once you do, the water (your brain) finds the path of least resistance and it’s all down hill from there.
That’s why we’re going to find a habit you already have, and do your meditation right after.
Here are a few example morning habits to piggy-back off of:
- Brush your teeth, then meditate.
- Shower, then meditate.
- Coffee, then meditate.
- Get dressed, then meditate.
The habit can be anything – so long as it’s a well-established habit in your day.
By attaching your meditation to an existing habit, you won’t have to do as much work (system 2) in remembering to do it each day. (The scientists call this anchoring or piggybacking. It increases your chance of success. Use it!)
Step 3: Vary your practice time.
A common analogy to describe the mind often uses a glass of muddy water. The idea is that by letting the glass sit out on a table and doing nothing, the mud will naturally settle to the bottom naturally and the water will clear up.
As you approach a new meditation habit, you should consider the very real possibility that a 10-20 minute meditation might feel a lot easier than a 5-10 minute meditation.
This is because the first few minutes can be the worst part. Once the monkey mind takes some time to calm the eff down, your meditation experience can change dramatically without much extra effort.
If you spent your first two months only spending 2-5 minutes a day, you might NEVER get to the point where your mind naturally settles down… and you might think you must just suck at this meditation thing.
I suggest adding at least one day a week (pick a specific day) where you at least double or triple your total sit time. See what happens over time, and make adjustments to your practice accordingly.
Step 4: Find the right time of day.
We all have different peak times of energy based on our work, personal, sleep, and workout schedules.
If you choose a time to meditate where you are naturally tired, it’s going to be a lot harder than you think – maybe even impossible for you to actually build the habit.
I suggest experimenting with a few different times of day before you officially choose your time slot.
I have a short window in both the morning and evening where if I meditate I know I’ll be distracted and tired. If this happens to you, know that you aren’t bad at meditation. You probably just need to find a better time.
Step 5: Stop thinking about this as a temporary change.
Imagine your doctor told you that you need to now take this life-saving medication every day in order to stay alive. That it now needs to be taken regularly in order for you to survive.
You would view this dramatically different than a week’s work of antibiotics. It is now a part of your life, not a thing to be endured.
Your mind is permanent fixture. It demands a permanent response. This isn’t a crash diet or quick fix. This is a new way of being. Treat it that way. Give it the mental respect it deserves, and start to think about this not as a temporary change, but a new part of who you are. Once you really accept this, you will feel a weight come off your shoulders.
Use your self-construction to your benefit. Tell yourself (and believe it): “I am a person who meditates each day” or “Meditation is important to me.”
Making the meditator ego work for us, especially in the beginning (and telling friends about it) can be an extremely powerful ally in habit formation. But this is one especially you’ll want to watch carefully – don’t let your meditation ego grow too strong and go to your head. You’ll want to dispose of all this later.
Step 6: Call yourself on your own bullshit.
Everyone has time to meditate, every day.
If you think you are too busy, reframe this thought in more honest terms. Instead of thinking about meditation like a thing you don’t have time for, tell yourself it’s not a priority. “I don’t have time to meditate” becomes “meditation isn’t a priority.”
All we have is our conscious experience. Everything we do falls in the category of the movie theatre of our minds. We spend time on so many things in our life – but all of it is trumped by the way we see the world; all of it falls on this movie screen.
You are going to come up with excuses, whether it’s time or something else. You need to stay vigilant and call yourself on your own BS.
Try meditating on a commute, on a walk, or while exercising if need be.
Step 7: Choose one bridge activity.
Don’t let your formal meditation practice stand alone. Practicing just meditation for a few minutes a day in the modern world is like sending out 300 Spartan warriors to hold back a tide of
thousands millions of enemies.
Give your formal meditation practice an ally – a bridge to the real world.
Identify some real world scenario you can be more present or mindful in.
- Can you apply mindfulness to stressful meetings?
- Can you take advantage of an otherwise “mindless” commute and do a walking meditation or basic breath awareness?
- Do you have any boring or menial tasks that you can explore with mindfulness? (dishes, cleaning?)
Choosing a bridge activity does two big things:
- It helps you see the real world benefits of meditation as you level up. This creates a positive feedback loop – you stay motivated, you see results, you become more motivated. Everyone wins.
- It helps you build momentum. When we have a particularly good meditation session, it can feel like the “real world” quickly undoes our work. A bridge activity can help you chain together mindful moments and return to the mat with momentum.
The Meditation Habit Blueprint
That was a lot of information, so I’m going to run you through a real world example.
- Start small. Build in Progress: 2 minutes each day, but bump it up to five minutes after week 2.
- Attach it to an existing habit: After I brush my teeth I meditate.
- Vary your practice time: “Fridays I meditate for 2x as long.”
- Find the right time of day: I have great energy right when I wake up and right after lunch. That’s when I’ll meditate.
- This is not a temporary change: I am someone who meditates and values meditation.
- Call yourself out: I have the time and resources I need to meditate. It’s on me to make it happen.
- Bridge activity: On my walk to the bus each morning I will practice walking meditation, or at the very least try to be mindful during my walk.
Finally, here are some other random tips you might find useful:
- Stop looking at each meditation session as good or bad: You will feel like there are ups and downs. Don’t beat yourself up for the downs. Just go with the flow and accept them as a part of the process.
- Try creating a dedicated space to meditate: If you have a quiet space you can set up with a chair, pillow, or cushion, claim it! It might help you build a ritual and thus the habit.
- Read meditation books/blogs or listen to lectures: I find that when I am particularly immersed in a new piece of literature on meditation, my practice gets reinvigorated.
- Try an app: Certainly not necessary, but if you need an extra boost, it could be right for you.
- Find an accountability-buddy: Find someone who also wants to form the habit, and check in daily to verify you got it done, and debrief about the sit.
There you have it. Any steps or tips that you think I left out?
PS – Once a week I send out a comic, video, short story, etc, as a fun and light “mindful reminder” along with any links to new articles. Check out the list, Mindful Mondays, if you’re interested!
PPS – Did you find this article helpful? If so, you may enjoy this article explaining how our minds actually have two modes of processing: automatic and deliberative.
Also, the Reddit discussion thread for this article is HERE!
photo: Ant Barett: Meditation Rocks