I’ve jumped on and fallen off the meditation wagon for years. Sometimes, a New Year’s resolution got me to put my butt on a cushion and focus on my breathing. Other times, inspiration struck after I attended a talk or a workshop about mindfulness. Still other times, I simply craved the extra layer of emotional “padding” that regular meditation gives me.
Yet, no matter how motivated I am to meditate, my mindfulness practice has rarely lasted more than a few weeks straight. Why do I keep quitting something that is easy, efficient, effective – and feels great? Let me count the reasons: I’m so busy! I have to walk the dog! I’m too tired! I forgot!
A few months ago, I was complaining to my friend Deborah about being a meditation miscreant. Like me, Deborah finds the practice satisfying and rewarding. Like me, Deborah has started and stopped meditating time and again. Fed up with ourselves, we decided to commit once more to daily meditation. This time, we devised a complex, sophisticated, text-based algorithm to keep us both accountable.
Let me explain our extremely high-tech system. Each day, we’d send each other a message like this:
Deborah: 1 (thumbs-up emoji)
Me: 1 (thumbs-up emoji)
Deborah: 2 (thumbs-up emoji)
Me: 2 (thumbs-up emoji)
Deborah: 3 (thumbs-up emoji)
Me: 3 (thumbs-up emoji)
And so on.
Clearly, I’m kidding when I describe our accountability system as complex. But the power it had on both of us was no joke. Almost immediately, I realized our simple daily text was the Swiss Army knife of imessages. This particular multi-purpose tool served as a reminder (“Willow, don’t forget to meditate!”), a gently competitive nudge (“Deborah already meditated today. Have you?”), an incentive (“After you meditate, you can text Deborah!”), and a reward (“You did it. Now go text Deborah!”).
Sending a daily message also made me feel like I was participating in an ongoing, wordless conversation. With just a number and an emoji, I was communicating something along the lines of, “Hi Deborah! I meditated today just like I said I would. You did, too. Doesn’t it feel great to keep up with our commitment? We rock!”
As our numbers increased, we rewarded ourselves along the way. At Day 21 we went out for vodka gimlets and toasted our three-week streak. On Day 45, we treated ourselves to a matinee showing of a Broadway musical. Day 100, we laughed and wondered, “Will we keep on doing this forever?”
As we started closing in on Day 200, I was in the mindfulness zone. I was meditating twice a day – I’d spend 15 minutes on my purple pillow at some point during the day and then, each night, I’d drift off to sleep listening to a guided visualization. I’d developed a Pavlovian-type of response to the guide’s calm, soothing voice, and I was sleeping better than I had in months.
Then, nearly seven months in to my longest-ever meditation streak, I was suddenly slammed at work. I felt stressed and overwhelmed, and mediation was exactly what I needed to help me stay grounded. Naturally, I started skipping my daily session. Then, I got walloped with the flu. Aching, coughing, and exhausted, mindfulness was the last thing on my mind — or my to-do list.
Not surprisingly, Deborah lost her mediation mojo at around the same time. No wonder: Without our shared system to remind, nudge, incentivize, and reward us, we’d lost the external “scaffolding” that kept our commitment strong and steady.
Our streak was over.
Three days ago, my phone buzzed. It was a message from Deborah.
1 (woman-in lotus-position emoji)
Two hours later, I texted her back.
1 (woman-in-lotus-position emoji)
With that, we were back on track. As usual, I don’t know how long our meditate-and-message run will last. But I do know this. Every streak starts with the same magic number: one.