Meditation has many benefits, but it’s also incredibly hard.
It has been one of the most challenging habits to incorporate in my life. However, once I figured out how to make it a habit, I’ve become less stressed, more focused, and more creative.
In this article, I’ll show you how I made meditation a daily habit, step-by-step.
This is not your average one-size-fits-all guide on the topic, but rather a framework you can adapt to your own needs.
Let’s dive in…
Two Fundamental Principles for Forming a Lasting Meditation Habit
The key to forming any habit is to start small and go slow.
(It’s also the part where most people fail.)
Forming a meditation habit takes time. But, by following these principles, you’ll avoid most of the pitfalls.
Start Smaller Than You Think
To stick to a daily meditation routine, you have to set the bar so low that you can’t fail.
Stanford professor BJ Fogg suggests that when motivation is high, people can do hard things, but once it drops, people will only do easy things. He calls this the “motivation wave.” To stick to a new habit, you have to make it so easy that you’ll do it even without motivation.
Rather than trying to meditate for 20 minutes per day, start by meditating for two minutes per day. It’s all it takes in the beginning. Often, when beginners start meditating for only two minutes, they find themselves meditating longer.
Also, consider micro mindfulness if you struggle with finding time for meditation.
Go Slower Than You Think, Too
You’ve probably seen all of these stories about people changing their lives in 30 days. Some people start meditating for an hour per day without any prior experience. Others start doing 100 pushups per day without having done a single pushup in years.
Truth is, most of these people don’t stick to it after the 30 days are over.
You can’t change your life in 30 days. It’s not realistic.
A much better approach is to aim for small wins.
If you start meditating for two minutes per day, increase the time to three minutes per day the following week. If you continue to increase the sessions’ time by only one minute per week, you’ll be meditating for 20 minutes a day in five months.
"But Christoffer, five months is a very long time,” I hear you say.
If you start meditating for a lifestyle change, you probably want to stick to it for many, many years. In the big picture, five months is not that long.
Forming new habits is like planting a tree and watching it grow. At first, you meditate for only two minutes a day, but after some years, mindfulness has become part of your everyday life, and you can harvest the fruits.
All it takes is patience.
The Habit Loop
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg introduces The Habit Loop, a concept for understanding habits. It consists of three parts: A cue, a routine, and a reward.
“To understand your own habits,” Duhigg explains, “you need to identify the components of your loops.” Of course, this can be used for forming new habits, too.
A cue is anything that triggers a specific habit, for example, a location, a time of day, other people, an emotional state, or an immediately preceding action.
For the meditation habit, here are examples of cues:
Location - Once you get home from work
Time of day - At 6AM
Other people - When meeting a meditation buddy
Emotional state - When feeling stressed
Preceding action - Brushing teeth
I encourage you to experiment with different cues to find out what works best for you. Making meditation a priority by getting it done first thing in the morning helps me actually get it done and be more calm and productive during the rest of the day.
The routine is the actual action associated with the habit. It’s the part of the habit loop that connects the cue with the reward.
So, in this case, it’s meditation.
To make it easier to get the routine done, it’s necessary that you set up your environment to help you.
For example, suppose you decide to meditate first thing in the morning. In that case, you can set up your environment in the evening. Prepare your meditation cushion, yoga mat, a chair, or whatever you use when meditating, so you see it when you wake up. If you decide to meditate when you get home from work, place your meditation equipment in the hallway, so you see it once you get home.
Also, remove distractions. Once you start meditating, you don’t want to get disturbed by your phone.
Make it as easy as possible to get the habit done.
The reward is the part of the loop that reinforces the behavior and makes us return for more.
Someone who practices meditation regularly might experience less stress on days when they meditate than on days when they don’t. That, in itself, can be enough of a reward to reinforce the behavior. However, since many of these results become noticeable after days, weeks, or even months of regular practice, it’s crucial to find ways to make meditation satisfying in the beginning.
One simple way to reward yourself is by using the “Don’t break the chain"-method by comedian Jerry Seinfeld. He came up with this method as a way to always improve his jokes. He believed that to write better jokes, he had to write a new joke every day. When he came up with a joke, he marked that day in his calendar with a big “X.” After a few weeks, he had so many crosses that he didn’t want to miss a day and start over again.
I suggest that you get yourself a monthly calendar. Every day you meditate, cross that day off. On days when you don’t have time to meditate for 20 minutes, meditate for only one minute to keep the streak going. Knowing that you only have to meditate for one minute makes it so much easier to actually do it.
A note on meditation apps. Some meditation apps use gamification to help new practitioners form a meditation habit (and to increase revenue). Users get rewards in the form of badges and streaks. Personally, I’m skeptical about this, but that’s another story. However, if it helps you form a habit and you don’t mind the hefty price tag many apps come with, you should definitively use it.
Keep it Simple and Consistent
The most important part of forming any habit is consistency.
Forming new habits takes time. In a 2009 study published in European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers at University College London examined how long it takes to form new habits.
96 volunteers were asked to choose an eating, drinking or activity behavior to complete daily in the same context (after the same cue) for 12 weeks.
There are multiple takeaways from this study.
First, the researchers found that it took between 18 and 254 days to form a habit and notes that forming a new habit can take “very long time.” It’s fair to guess that the time it takes depends on the complexity of the habit. It’s easier to begin drinking a glass of water first in the morning than running for 15 minutes before dinner.
Second, missing a day didn’t affect the habit formation process for the participants. However, the researchers emphasize that repetition of a behaviour in a consistent context is important for forming habits.
I believe that following a guided meditation can help beginners stay consistent. It can also be easier to follow a guided instruction rather than something (almost abstract) like “observe your breath.” However, don’t be too hard on yourself if you miss a day, but never miss two days in a row.
Expanding Your Practice Beyond Meditation
Meditation is just the core of a mindful life. When you practice regularly, you’ll find that it starts to affect other areas of your life, too.
Once you have become comfortable practicing meditation in a quiet space, you can expand your mindfulness practice and bring mindfulness into your daily life. Here’s how:
- Do your chores mindfully
- Have mindful conversations
- Mindful journaling
- Explore other types of meditation, for example, walking meditation or yoga.
Living a mindful life is about your lifestyle choices. One way to start is by living more slowly and be more mindful about all the little things in life. You can practice mindfulness while having a conversation with someone; waiting for the bus; walking; brushing teeth; eating; drinking tea… You can practice almost everywhere.
The Bottom Line
Making meditation a daily practice takes time. And a lot of patience.
To summarize, here are the essential ideas outlined in this article for forming a daily meditation habit:
- Start so small that you’ll be able to meditate on days when you don’t feel like doing it at all.
- When you don’t have time to meditate for 20 minutes, meditate for one minute.
- If you miss a day, get back on track quickly.
- Use the “Don’t break the chain"-method to reinforce the habit loop.
If you’ve spent your whole life being busy, it will take time to learn a mindful approach.
However, if you’re in it for the long run and are looking for a lifestyle change, sticking to small wins is the way to go.
I often write about bringing mindfulness into everyday life in my newsletter. If you want to live more mindfully, you should give it a try.