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.
Eating your vegetables, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, drinking in moderation…all habits we know are good for our health but aren’t always easy to cultivate.
Meditation is another good-for-you practice whose benefits have been touted by neuroscientists and spiritual practitioners alike. But it’s hard to do and even harder to incorporate into a busy life.
Here are some suggestions for making meditation a habit.
1. Start slow.
Many of the mindfulness-based therapy protocols, such as MBSR, call for 45 minutes of daily practice. Transcendental Meditation (TM) requires its adherents to commit to 20 minutes twice a day. Those daunting time demands discourage many people from even getting started.
The good news is that practicing mindfulness meditation for as little as 8 hours can be beneficial, as Dr. Amishi Jha of the University of Miami found in a series of studies with a group of very time-crunched subjects: active-duty military personnel.
I recommend beginning with 5 minutes a day of a formal meditation exercise. If you can manage twice a day, better yet. Add in some informal mindfulness practice each day—such as brushing your teeth, showering, or washing the dishes with your full, focused attention—and you’ll be off to a good start.
2. Be consistent.
Try to practice every day. Knowing you only have to put in five minutes makes it more manageable. You don’t have to meditate at the same time every day but, as with any other habit, you might find it easier to remember to do if it’s part of your daily routine.
3. Let go of expectations.
Mindfulness means observing without judging. Forget about trying to “empty your mind” or achieve a state of calm. Many people give up on meditating because they find it hard not to think. In fact, “not thinking” is an impossible state of mind to achieve. With practice, however, you can learn not to let your thoughts intrude—to have them playing in the background like a TV with the volume turned low and not get caught up in the show.
Because the benefits of meditation—such as increased focus and decreased emotional reactivity—aren’t immediately apparent and take time to build, it’s especially hard to stick with it. But the research provides ample incentive to give it a try. And if you follow my advice, it may, with time, become an important part of your day.
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.