Meditation is good for us. It reduces stress, improves our quality of sleep, boosts our compassion, helps us manage anxiety, and positively impacts our life satisfaction. But if meditation is so good for us, why is it so hard to turn it into a habit? Well, making new habits stick can be tricky. We’re creatures of routine, not of changing routines.
Thankfully, if you’ve struggled to make meditation an everyday practice, we’ve got a few strategies for you that we think can help. After all, who wouldn’t want the chance to feel less stressed, control their anxiety, have better emotional health, enhance their self-awareness, lengthen their attention span, reduce age-related memory loss, be kinder, better fight addiction, improve their sleep, and improve their relationship with pain?
Meditation has been shown to do all of that, so let’s get started.
1. Start small
Think you need to sit down for 20 minutes to reap the benefits of meditation? Think again. All new hobbies benefit from starting small. If you want to get into running, you shouldn’t start with a six–mile run. If you wanted to trying skiing, no one would advise you to try the double black diamond first. The same goes for meditation. Meditation is literally all about practice — that’s why it’s called a “meditation practice,” not meditation perfection. Start with just a few minutes a day of simply inviting a moment of pause. You can even just try sitting still for 5 minutes each day without meditating. Just get used to setting aside a little bit of time to be away from phones, computers, TVs, books, and people — time that you can just be with yourself. Let the pause be your introduction into a meditation practice. When that becomes habit, incorporate a meditation from the app to explore more deeply.
2. Attach it to an existing habit
One of the simplest ways to create a new habit is to attach it to an existing one. What does this mean? Well, it could mean that after you brush your teeth in the morning, you meditate. You begin to associate teeth brushing with meditating, and it becomes routine: wake up, brush teeth, meditate, wake up, brush teeth, meditate.
And you can attach meditation to pretty much any habit. Meditate after you finish a workout. Meditate before a work out! Meditate after you finish walking the dog. Meditate at your desk before your first Zoom call of the day. Meditate in your car before after a long day at work.Meditate on a bench between classes. Meditate in bed before you go to sleep. Meditate in a conference room (or on your couch) after lunch.
All that’s important is that you’re attaching the habit of meditation to another regular habit. It doesn’t need to be every day — just regular enough to make a practice stick.
3. Incorporate “forgiveness days”
Speaking of “regular enough,” make sure to allow yourself some forgiveness days. Forgiveness days are just cheat days with a little bit of rebranding. Is meditating every day good for you? Of course. But taking a day off now and then isn’t bad for you. Many apps that offer meditation incorporate a feature called a “run streak,” but run streaks are actually counter to the point of meditation. Meditation helps us foster compassion toward others and toward ourselves. Getting upset with ourselves because we missed a day of meditation isn’t healthy or useful.
To keep a practice, allow yourself the space to take days off. And then compare the days you meditated with the days you didn’t – how are they different? This allows you to become more aware of the benefits of meditation which reinforces your commitment to make it stick!
One thing to keep in mind though: if you’re skipping a day because you’re overwhelmed with deadlines and expectations, that may be a day when meditating could be especially helpful.
4. Rethink what meditation is
Two of the main reasons people give up on meditation are the following:
- They can’t clear their mind
- They’re not seeing benefits
Let’s tackle the first one. Meditation is not about emptying your head. Our minds create thoughts, and if you’re not thinking, you may have bigger problems – like your brain not functioning! Meditation doesn’t eradicate our thoughts; it helps us have a better relationship with them. Imagine a messy closet, the kind you sort of throw things in without really looking, the kind you promise to organize… just not right now. When do you finally sit down to organize that closet, you need to make a bigger mess first. When you take everything out of the closet, it spills into the hallway or room, and you have to sort everything into piles. This process can feel overwhelming! You might even think, “ugh, why did I start this project?” But once it’s all sorted, you feel great. You were able to find things you thought you’d lost, give everything a proper home, and you were probably even able to let some things go, making space in your closet.
The mind is similar, and meditation helps us organize it. When we first sit down with our thoughts, it’s like opening that messy closet. Most of us just want to close the door and deal with it later. But the sooner we start organizing, the sooner we feel better. It’s also important to remember we didn’t throw away everything in the closet. The closet is still full of things! We just know what they are. It’s the same with meditation. You don’t get rid of your thoughts, you just learn to recognize them, categorize them, and choose what to do with them.
On to the second point, being able to choose how you react to your thoughts takes time. It would be a magic trick to snap your fingers and see a messy closet just poof! into a clean one. If you want to learn a language, you don’t study for an hour and then say, “why am I not fluent yet?” You may experience some benefits right away, but typically the benefits of meditation take time. Trying to make meditation “work” is like trying to make yourself fall asleep. The benefits come out of practicing whether you feel like doing it or not – just like exercise.
Stick with it! Even just ten days of meditation has been shown to decrease stress by 14%.
Managing our expectations can help us manage our habits. How do you plan to stick to a meditation habit?
By Paul Deger, MA, LPC, PT
Mindfulness Facilitator and Product Manager, Moment Health
Paul Deger has over 30 years’ experience in healthcare. He earned his undergraduate degree in physical therapy at Marquette University. As a physical therapist, Paul has practiced in both inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation settings, specializing in neurological disorders. He furthered his studies in motor learning and control in the graduate physical therapy program at the University of Pittsburgh.
Paul then shifted focus from physical to psychological health and completed his graduate studies at Naropa University, Boulder, earning a Master’s in Mindfulness-Based Counseling Psychology. On retreat, he has also trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction with Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli of the Center for Mindfulness at University of Massachusetts Medical School and studied in sangha with Lloyd Burton, Dharma teacher from Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Recognizing the impact of spirituality on health, Paul more recently studied pastoral care at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.