If you're looking to begin or sustain a meditation practice, I can tell you: it isn't easy and you're not alone in your struggle.
I've heard countless people ask me how and where to begin.
Drawing on my background and nerdy love for behavior design, I've brought together some of my favorite actionable tips and mindsets around nurturing a meditation practice.
Keep in mind: there is no one-size fits all solution — that’s why I have framed these as principles and not “rules.” It’s best to be experimental and creative. After all, the most reliable way to change yourself is to know yourself.
1. Start small and then let it grow.
Most traditions will tell you to meditate for 20 minutes, but 20 minutes is really long for someone who is hoping to begin a meditation habit.
Start with 1 minute - 5 minutes. Once you practice that small amount of time consistently, then you can add more time.
2. Choose one technique.
Take the guess work out of meditation by committing to a specific technique as you develop the habit. Keep it simple: use one technique throughout the entire time.
I have found that people who have tried to invent their own technique or mix-and-match techniques get frustrated and confused.
If you don't have a technique, start with guided meditations (two free ones at the bottom of this post).
3. Use a timer.
Set your bell or alarm for the amount of time, even if it’s one minute. Take the guess work out. The timer is a tool that will prevent you from guessing whether you’re done. In behavior design, we offload any mental work onto our environment.
4. Get a meditation buddy.
I’m sure you’ve heard this one plenty of times! But here’s the truth: social accountability is one of the surest ways to lock down a new behavior.
At the Stanford Medical School, I required my students to pair up around their practice and found that “the buddy system” — more than almost any other thing — ensured that they practiced outside of class.
5. Anchor your meditation to another habit.
You might have noticed that you have certain actions you do everyday, almost without fail. For example, you get out of bed in the morning or close the door when you leave your apartment.
You can leverage those actions, also known as “anchors.” Identify an anchor and place your meditation habit right after it (note: not before, but right after). Your anchor would then mentally cue you to meditate.
Pro-tip: Most of us tend to have our strongest anchor habits cluster in the morning and in the evening, because that’s when most people have set routines.
6. Remind yourself to do it.
In addition to your anchor, add a reminder in your environment that triggers you to do your meditation at the very moment you plan to do it.
It’s ideal if this trigger is close or related to your anchor. For example, if your anchor is “after I wake up in the morning,” you can place a little buddha statue on your night table right next to your alarm. The little statue will additionally cue you to do your meditation practice.
If your anchor is “after I brush my teeth at night,” you can put a post-it note next to your mirror bathroom that reminds you to meditate.
7. Reward yourself.
Reward yourself after every meditation sit! Give yourself a pat on the back or do a mini-dance celebration, even if you judge it to be a “crappy” meditation.When we reward ourselves for a particular action, we increase the chances that we will do it again in the future.
Pro-tip: An additional way I reward myself is by checking off my meditation into Lift — an app that helps you track your habits.
8. Commit to a time span.
Will you meditate like this forever? No — 99.99% of us will not. 0.01% of people will, either because they have very strong community ties or their motivation in this particular area is extremely fixed.
But for the remaining 99.99% of us: choose a number of days (it could be even as short as two days) that you will test your meditation out. After you finished that time span, you will recommit a new time span to yourself.
The idea is to shape up to longer time spans, until it becomes a stable habit.
9. Have an experimental attitude.
After you’ve done the habit for X days, ask yourself whether you want to keep doing it the way you’ve been doing it. What’s working and what isn’t? Keep it fluid. Iterate. Refine.
10. Don’t be afraid to go with the flow.
We started small for a reason: we are making the behavior very easy to do that way we don’t have to rely on willpower and discipline.
But after you’ve grown the meditation, you’ll see that there are times when your willpower will dip — totally natural! We are humans, not machines.
At the moment that you recognize your motivation is low, make the meditation even easier to do.
How? You can shorten it to less time. You can do it in bed, instead of in your zen meditation space. You can ask yourself: “What’s the easiest thing I can commit to right now?” And then do it.
Making the behavior easier to do is better than doing nothing because you don’t totally lose momentum.
In other words, surf the waves of your changing motivation levels.
And here are two of my free guided meditations. These meditations focus on you become more aware of your surroundings, body, thoughts, and feelings to support you tapping into a sense of peace and spaciousness. Download the short (5 minute) version here and long (13 minute) version here.
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