You’ve been meaning to start meditating for a while, but it hasn’t happened yet. And it’s not for lack of desire. You really want to have a meditation habit.
You’ve heard of countless celebrities and CEOs who credit meditation for much of their success. And you’ve read about the amazing health benefits of regular meditation like reduced stress and anxiety, increased focus and energy, and better sleep.
Who doesn’t want all those health benefits? Who doesn’t want to crush life like a CEO? Ah, if only building a new habit was as simple as really, really wanting the benefits of that habit.
If knowing all the health benefits of regular meditation was all you needed to build the habit — then knowing all the health risks of smoking would be all that smokers needed to break their habit.
But that’s not how habits work. You’re going to need a system and some realistic expectations to get you over the hump.
The first rule of building a new habit is to start super small and be gentle with yourself. This is the opposite of what most people do.
Most people burst out of the starting gate with sky-high expectations and almost immediately burn out. And then they beat themselves up for not living up to their own standards.
You know that person who vows they will start going to the gym 3–5 times a week — without having ever gone to the gym more than a handful of times in the same month? Their enthusiasm makes the first week fairly easy, then the second week is hard, and halfway through the third week, they give up. Cue feelings of guilt and frustration.
That person might be you. But regardless — building your new meditation habit doesn’t have to be a discouraging process.
The habit expert and popular blogger James Clear says in order to build a new habit, you need to make it “so easy you can’t say no.” You should literally start so small, and make things so easy, you have no mental resistance to doing your new habit every day.
“In the beginning,” he says, “performance is irrelevant. Doing something impressive once or twice isn’t going to matter if you never stick with it for the long run.” So even if you want to eventually meditate for 20 minutes every day, don’t start there.
Think about the amount of time you could devote to meditation today, tomorrow, and the day after that wouldn’t bring up any mental resistance whatsoever.
Does 5 minutes sound 100% doable? If not, does 2 minutes sound extremely easy? You want your designated amount of time to pass the “extremely easy” test.
Try not to aim for longer than 10 minutes at the beginning. You could probably force yourself to meditate for 20 or 30 minutes once or twice as a beginner. But the goal is to eliminate the need for any forcing — and to meditate every day, not just once or twice.
It’s inevitable that life will come up and you will skip a day here and there. That’s to be expected. Just try to not let those days be back to back.
When a skip day happens, don’t beat yourself up. But do make an extra effort to get back on the wagon and meditate the next day. You could even make it extra easy for yourself by meditating for a shorter period than normal.
Remember it’s far more destructive for your long-term habit formation to miss multiple days in a row than it is to shorten sessions and generally make things easier.
You’re training your brain to identify as “someone who meditates every day.” That’s easy to do when you’re consistently giving your brain evidence that supports your “daily meditator” identity. It’s much harder when the days start to stack up in which you’re not meditating.
In Charles Duhigg’s bestselling book The Power of Habit, he advises to choose a preexisting trigger for any new habit you want to create. You’re effectively gluing your new habit to a habit you already have.
For example, if you want to go to the gym every day, you can choose “getting out of bed in the morning” as your trigger to grab your gym bag and head out the door.
For your new meditation habit, you don’t want to rely on just trying to “fit it in” during your busy day. It will be easy to prioritize other tasks that have tangible deadlines and consequences, and then never get around to meditating.
You don’t even want to rely on scheduling meditation for a particular time, like 7am or 5:30pm. Picking a time out of thin air can feel arbitrary and be easy to blow off.
The best thing to do is to make a daily activity you already do your trigger for meditation. You just tack meditation on top of it, and now your meditation habit can ride along with some of the momentum of your established habit.
Perhaps you want to use “waking up in the morning” as your trigger to sit up against the pillows and meditate for a few minutes. Or you could use your evening train commute to pop in some earbuds and meditate. Maybe your perfect trigger is coming home from work and snuggling up in your favorite chair to meditate before making dinner. It’s up to you.
Almost as important as picking a good trigger, is finding ways to make meditation more enjoyable. The more you enjoy doing something, the more you look forward to it — and the easier it is to keep doing it.
International meditation teacher Light Watkins shares in his book Bliss More: How To Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying the importance of making meditation comfortable and relaxing. He points out that meditation is not just about the long-term benefits, it’s also about enjoying each individual session and looking forward to it the way you look forward to your morning coffee or putting your feet up to watch Netflix after work.
So forget about torturing yourself by trying to keep your back perfectly straight or folding your legs into a painful pretzel shape. Be natural. Get comfy cozy by sinking back into a couch, an armchair, or the pillows on your bed.
You want your head to be upright, but your back should be nice and supported by the soft couch or pillows. You don’t want to be straining anywhere in your body. After all, your meditation sessions are all about relaxation and stress-relief!
Another way to help yourself relax and enjoy your meditations more is to add comforting props to your sessions.
Things like blankets, yummy-smelling candles, herbal tea, music, and nature sounds can help transform your meditations into decadent, spa-like experiences. You want to feel the way this bulldog looks… 😉
You’ve probably been wondering what you’re supposed to do once you’ve settled down onto the couch under a blanket and closed your eyes.
The easiest meditation method for most beginners is to focus on your breath and count your inhales and exhales. So on an inhale, count one. On the exhale, count two. Inhale, three. Exhale, four.
Count up to ten, and then count down again to one (exhale, ten. Inhale, nine. Exhale, eight…). Continue like this for your whole session.
Spoiler alert: you will get distracted by your thoughts and lose track of counting your breath. You might not even make it up to “five” each time without sliding into thoughts of “what should I make for dinner?” “I wonder when Mark will text me back,” “my foot itches,” etc.
That’s totally normal. Just start over counting at “one” each time you notice your attention has wandered.
Your mind will always wander, that’s what minds do. The point isn’t to try to stop the mind from wandering in the first place — it’s to bring your attention back to your breath once you’ve noticed your mind has wandered.
Each time you do this, it’s a little mental recovery of attention. And that is what meditation is all about. Recovery after recovery after recovery. Your mind wanders, then you refocus your attention. You get lost in thoughts, then you come back to your breath.
This could happen 50 times in two minutes and that’s totally fine. Just make sure you’re not being hard on yourself each time you notice you’ve gotten lost in your thoughts.
Every time you bring your attention back to your breath is worthy of a mini-celebration. You’re training your brain and getting a jumpstart on those amazing health benefits. Woohoo — party time!
What benefit are you most excited about when it comes to regular meditation? What daily trigger do you think you’ll use? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!