Have you ever felt frustrated for not doing something that you knew would help you? Be it a meditation practice to feel calmer, or an exercise habit to feel mobile and healthy? Have you thought about it every day, but had hard time making the next steps to actually sit down and meditate? Are you like me who has spent time reading about meditation for a lot longer than it takes to actually meditate? May be you have not been able to find the time to meditate because you are always so busy? You are told that building a meditation habit is a significant time commitment, isn’t it?
In this article, we are going to focus on meditation practice for sake of concreteness, but I have applied these ideas to develop many other habits.
Or may be you can push yourself to start meditating for a few days, but then keep falling off the habit after a few days? You have what it takes to get started, but not what it takes to continue.
Do you feel guilty?
If any of these applies to you, you are in a good place. I have been there in the same spot where it was extremely difficult to develop habits. I remember back in 2000’s during my graduate school. I wanted to meditate every day for 10 minutes. I remember I would read about meditation for 45 minutes, talk to friends about not being able to meditate for hours, but not actually do the damn 10 minutes of meditation. Fast forward to now: I have meditated for one hour each day since end of February 2018 (that is, for the last 16 months).
Now, you don’t have to want to meditate for one hour each day to implement these ideas to develop your own habit. Read on!
Here are three steps to develop your own practice or habit.
Step 1. Figure out how long you can sit in meditation on a bad day.
On a bad day is the key. Imagine the day when something urgent came up in the morning, and then you had a lot of work to do during the day, and the evening went down the drain because of an argument with your spouse and the kids did not go to bed in time so you were exhausted. You get the point. You are exhausted; you are tired; you are spent, and it might be well past your bed time. And you have not meditated!
How long can you commit to meditating at that time? May be that time is 5 minutes. May be it is 2 minute. May be it is just 1 minute or even 30 seconds.
Don’t worry about how short that time is. If you think you can meditate for more than 5 minutes, you are probably overestimating yourself. Just consider that possibility. This is almost always true for me when I am trying to develop a new habit.
Step 2. Reduce the time into half. And round it down.
Why? Didn’t you pick a time for which you can meditate no matter what?
Yes, but I have worked with many people in my coaching practice over past several months (not just for meditation practice, but to develop various other habits), and I have seen we tend not to be good at visualizing a difficult situation in detail. It is easier to say I will meditate for 5 minutes when I am tired but it is a whole different story to actually meditate for 5 minutes when you are tired. It seems like we tend to have two different selves: planning self, and executing self, and our executing self has hard time executing what planning self has planned.
We also tend to be impatient and want to develop a habit quickly, instead of going through the steps to actually experience the benefits of the habit.
Most people overestimate what they can do in one week and underestimate what they can do in ten years. — Bill Gates
There is no hurry to achieve a lot in a week. We are in it for the long haul. There will be time to solidify our practice.
Okay, so if you thought you can meditate for 3 minutes on a bad day, half that. 1 minute and 30 second. Round it down to 1 minute!
Step 3. Commit to the “halved time” each day.
Now comes the actual doing part. Commit to doing meditation for that halved time each day for 30 days.
Remember, this is a very short time and the idea is to take out “I don’t have time for it” excuse.
One aside. How do you remember to meditate. Put a timer on your phone. Link it to something you already do (e.g., do it right after brushing your teeth, or after breakfast).
Once you have done it for 30 days in a row, start to increase the time by one minute every week thereafter. The reason for doing it slowly? Because you will start to feel the benefits of meditation (or any habit for that matter), and you will have increased motivation to meditate then. Initially, when we want to meditate because it is beneficial, the benefits are all intellectual, not experiential. After actually installing the habit, the benefits become experiential, albeit very small in the beginning.
That is all for the actual steps.
Some of us have difficulty starting very small. It seems so puny to start meditation for 1 minute each day. We don’t think there is much benefit to such a small time commitment. What is wrong with traditional advice we get to power through the development of habits? Just be strong and start doing 20 minutes of meditation each day, e.g.? I say two things to that.
- It is much better to do 1 minute of meditation than plan to do 20 minutes (and not do it).
- There are benefits of doing even just a few moments each day. And some of the benefits are psychological, where we start to feel differently about us. Where we start to think of ourselves as a doer, not a procrastinator. The benefits of that shift are numerous even if the habit itself is not directly beneficial (in small dosage).
Why cannot we start doing something that we know is beneficial for us? Because we know it only intellectually. But not experimentally. We think we are motivated in our head, but we don’t feel the motivation in our gut, in our body. We think meditation will help us be calm, but we have never experienced it. This process is designed to raise your experiential understanding. We bootstrap by doing such a small time that is virtually requires no motivation (if we are open-minded and willing to spend a minute in the beginning without needing to see the benefits). Once we have a little bit of experiential benefit, we intellectually see that doing a bit more might be more beneficial. So, we increase the time (only one minute a week), and reap even more experiential benefit.
Remember, even if you start at virtually 0 minutes, in six months (26 weeks), you will get to over 20 minutes. Keep in mind the benefits of sitting silently for 20 minutes each day — that will also help to actually sit down every day.
If you fall off track and not able to meditate some day, remember to recommit. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t play that game. If need be, start from Day 1, and start from your initial time again.
Now, go ahead and do it. Stop reading. Go and meditate, instead of reading about meditation.