When I finished meditating today, the 10% Happier app I use for my practice rewarded me with a burst of confetti signaling the completion of 365 straight days of meditation. One year without missing a day! (To be clear, I have many more years than one of meditation under my belt but there have been occasional missed days to break the streak.) I am proud of the accomplishment and think it has earned me the right to share some tips for how to stick with a formal meditation practice.
The terms meditation and mindfulness are often used interchangeably but they are not the same. Mindfulness, to use the definition popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is being present, without judgment. Meditation is a way to cultivate the state of mindfulness. You can practice mindfulness without meditating but you cannot meditate without being mindful.
1.Aim for consistency rather than duration.
Beginning meditators often feel it “doesn’t count” if they sit for less than 10 or 15 minutes. Some protocols, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, call for 45 minutes of daily practice, an unrealistic and discouraging time commitment for most. However, data from a 2019 research study suggest that emotional regulation improved in new meditators when compared with a control group of podcast-listeners after only 8 weeks of brief (13 minutes), daily guided meditation.
As with any new behavior, cultivating the habit is the hardest part. Once you have established a routine by practicing daily, even if only for a minute or two, you can work on increasing the time.
2. Make it a habit.
You don’t have to meditate at the same time every day, and it may not always be practical to maintain a rigid schedule. But as with exercise, having a routine can be a helpful way to remember to practice. Set an alarm, or link the activity with a daily occurrence, such as waking up in the morning, beginning or ending the workday, or getting ready for bed.
3. Let go of expectations.
The point of mindfulness meditation is to work on being present, not trying to achieve a goal. There is no such thing as a “good” meditation session. If your mind is wandering constantly, you have more opportunities to practice bringing it back. If you feel restless or bored, you can observe the sensations of restlessness or boredom in your body. Relaxation and calm can be the by-products of meditation but they are not the main purpose.
The benefits of mindfulness practices are subtle but empirically well established. They can help develop psychological flexibility, relieve depression and anxiety, allow you to recognize negative thoughts as transitory mental events, improve focus, and cultivate compassion.
If you approach it with curiosity and let go of preconceived notions, meditation just might become an interesting and rewarding part of your daily routine.
I’ve been meditating daily for over three years, half of that time with the popular app, Headspace. But recently,thrown off by jet lag following a trip to the West Coast, I unaccountably forgot to meditate one day and broke my streak.
I was upset by my lapse and tried, as any good CBT practitioner would, to challenge my all-or-nothing thinking. One day out of over a thousand is no big deal. Less than a drop in the bucket. It didn’t negate my progress.
But Headspace didn’t see it that way. It reset my stats back to Day 1. Even more aggravating, it started sending me motivational messages like: “A 3-day run streak is a great start to your practice! Next stop 5!” And, after 5 days: “Nice job. This is precisely how you build a solid meditation practice. Think you can make it 10?” At 10 days, they told me: “Your consistency is outstanding. You’re starting to build a lasting, healthy habit.” And today, 15 days into my new streak, I got: “Great work. Maybe everything changes except your commitment to meditation.”
I decided I needed to say something. Here’s an excerpt from the email I wrote to Headspace:
I had over 450 consecutive days of Headspace under my belt until a few weeks ago, when travel to the West Coast threw me off schedule and I somehow forgot to meditate one day. I was upset to have broken my “streak,” but I tried to practice what I preach to the many perfectionists I work with by forgiving myself for the brief, and ultimately insignificant, lapse.
But Headspace is making it harder for me to let go of my mistake! It reset my progress back to zero and is giving me motivational messages after three, five, ten, fifteen days of consecutive practice to tell me I’m on my way to a solid practice and a commitment to meditation. I suppose I could use those statements as a mindfulness exercise, treating them as if they were just random thoughts of my own creation, but coming from the “experts,” they are not at all helpful.
I have continued to use the app but now am having second thoughts. I’m not sure whether such a quantitative, competitive (albeit only with myself) approach is really how I want to frame my meditation practice. And I certainly will be less enthusiastic in recommending it to my perfectionistic patients.
You might want to pass this feedback onto your software engineers to see if there could be a way turning off the streak function, or sending out messages of self-compassion to those who’ve accrued a lot of hours but miss a day here and there.
I’ll let you know what they say.
There’s no shortage of advice this time of year about eating clean and getting ripped. And while the prospect of a new you in the new year can be seductive, especially after a month of overindulgence, I’m not a fan of restrictive diets or New Year’s resolutions. They simply don’t work over the long haul.
Any rigid regimen carries with it the whiff of deprivation, of restraint, of saying “no” when your mind wants you to say “yes.” The key, we’re told, is willpower.
Just say no. Just do it.
Let’s be real. If it were so easy to turn away from that donut or force yourself out the door on a dark, frigid January morning to go to spinning class, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
We know from research that willpower is a limited resource. Over time, with repeated use, it becomes depleted, just like any energy source. And the moments when we most need it—say, after a stressful workday at happy hour when the margaritas are $5 and the queso and chips beckon—it’s gone.
So I suggest changing the narrative. It’s too easy to throw in the towel when you tell yourself, “I don’t have any willpower.” Those words render you powerless in the face of overwhelming forces beyond your control.
Instead of recruiting willpower to help you pursue your goals, consider building willingness power.
Willingness starts with motivation. Begin by looking at the costs and benefits of the behavior you want to change. If you want to improve your diet, for instance (notice I didn’t say “eat clean”), pay particular attention to what you get from the undesired habit. The costs will be readily apparent to you. But the benefits? Not so much.
To get you started, here are some real-life examples of the benefits of overeating (continuing to eat past the point of satiety or even to discomfort) I’ve heard over the years:
Then look at the costs (I’ll bet you won’t have any trouble coming up with a long list) and review them daily or more frequently if necessary. Remind yourself why it’s worth it to forego all the positive associations with the behavior you want to change in order to achieve your goal.
In a nutshell, willingness means being open to feeling short-term discomfort for long-term gain. It’s a useful skill to cultivate, and not just for sticking with a diet or exercise plan but for all the challenges life brings.
So in 2018, ditch the idea of willpower and practice willingness power. You’ll be laying a more solid foundation for success.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.