Having a daily meditation habit has many benefits. It can calm the nervous system and help us wrangle restless thoughts. It improves our concentration and ability to focus. It can even strengthen our willpower and self-control, as Kelly McGonigal explores in her book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.
“Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness,” McGonigal writes. It turns out that so much of self-control (willpower) stems from our ability to notice and redirect ourselves. As you’ll read in a moment, meditation is all about noticing and redirecting. In fact, that’s what we’re doing most of the time when we’re meditating.
Knowing meditation is good for us and actually being able to do it consistently are two different things. In fact, we need to deploy two different skill sets:
- Our ability to meditate;
- Our ability to create a meditation habit.
HOW TO MEDITATE
Meditation is less about clearing the mind and more about directing it. Thoughts will always come and go. We have very little control over the thoughts that arise but what we can control is what we do with them once they do. Do we let them pull us away from our point of focus (the breath, a mantra, a guided meditation) or do we let them float by like clouds? As we begin to meditate consistently, our ability to deliberately guide and focus our intention improves. As our skill increases, we’re able to choose not to engage with our thinking.
In its simplest form, the “how” of meditation is this: choose a point of focus to place your attention (the breath, a mantra, a guided meditation) and each time your mind drifts away, gently guide it back. You may do this 100 times over the course of a 10-minute meditation. This continuous re-placement of your attention IS the practice, not evidence that you’re doing it wrong. Need more ideas? Here are 10 ideas for making meditation easier.
HOW TO CREATE A MEDITATION HABIT
One of the hardest things about meditation is developing it as a habit. The “habit” part is important because it’s in the consistent practice that we start to feel the benefits of our meditation practice in the everyday living of our lives. Just like healthy eating, meditation isn’t something we can do just once in a while if we want to create change. Ideally, it’s something we do every day.
I’m a huge proponent of morning meditation for a few reasons. First, when meditation is the very first thing I do in my day, there’s not a lot that can happen to derail it or get in the way. Second, my mind is calmest and clearest when I first wake up. Once my day is in full gear, I find it harder to calm my thoughts. And third, mornings tend to be quiet. The kids are asleep and our phones are still in airplane mode. No one needs me at 6am. It’s a time just for me.
When I interviewed Naz Beheshti (author of Pause. Breathe. Choose.) on my podcast last month, we talked about her meditation habit. Naz’s practice is this: RPM, which stands for Rise, Pee, Meditate. She’s been able to stick with a daily meditation habit for over a decade because it’s the very first thing she does in her day (after she pees, of course).
A key pillar of effective habit-building is knowing how to “anchor” a behavior in the right place in your day. Ask yourself these questions: When does meditation make the most sense for me? When am I most likely to do it consistently without something getting in the way? When do I want to do it?
A second pillar of effective habit-building is knowing how big (or small) to start. In our excitement to begin a meditation habit, it may be tempting to set a big goal, such as meditating for 10, 20 or 30 minutes. The trouble with this approach is that after your initial enthusiasm wears off, you’re left with needing to use your willpower to get you to do your practice.
The most important insight I learned from BJ Fogg, a Stanford University behavioral scientist and the author of Tiny Habits, is that motivation (enthusiasm) and willpower are not sustainable or reliable. These eventually wane or deplete entirely and we’re left with a behavior that’s stranded by the side of the road. In essence, our behaviors run out of gas if we’re only using motivation and willpower for the fuel.
But when we create a habit, which is an action we do automatically and without conscious choice, we no longer use motivation or willpower at all. The key is to make your behavior really tiny as you’re building the habit so it’s almost effortless.
In terms of meditation, this would mean that your habit would be to meditate for one minute every day. That’s it! Just one minute. Once it becomes an established daily practice, then you scale up to ten minutes or more. But while you’re planting the seed of this habit, it’s important not to apply too much pressure to practice lest you will need to exert too much effort to do it. Make it reeeeaaaallllly easy to start your meditation habit and you’ll find that the practice will be far more sustainable.
Let’s recap. First, we meditate because it has oodles of benefits that will make your life calmer and your mind clearer. Second, we find an appropriate and reliable place/time to anchor the practice of daily meditation. Third, we start small and scale up only when the habit feels sturdy. And finally, we start. Make a plan and get into action with the spirit of a researcher. Learn as you go, tweak the habit as needed, pivot and modify along the way. Good luck!
ABOUT KRISTEN MANIERI
Kristen Manieri is certified both as a habits coach and a mindfulness teacher. She specializes in: stress reduction, energy management, mindset, resilience, habit formation, rest rituals, and self-care. As the host of the weekly 60 Mindful Minutes podcast, an Apple top 100 social science podcast, Kristen has interviewed over 100 authors and thought leaders about what it means to live a more conscious, connected, intentional and joyful life. Learn more at kristenmanieri.com/work-with-me.