Want to have a daily meditation practice but keep bailing or quitting after a short time? Getting tired of failing? Sticking with a habit isn’t just a matter of willpower. Here are 2 key strategies that helped me go from meditation procrastinator and drop out to consistently sitting – all while reaping the well-being rewards that come from meditation. Here’s how it works.
It’s not about willpower
This New Year’s I took up the challenge of meditating 100 hours in 2020. The impetus was wanting to develop a daily meditation habit after years of sporadic and intermittent sitting. I might start off strong but the initial euphoria of a new challenge would wear off and the day to day life challenge of motivation would set in. Another of my major hurdles was failing to develop a lasting routine to support the habit.
Maybe you have the same problems. Life often gets in the way of our best intentions when it comes to forming good habits. Our enthusiasm wanes and our willpower dwindles. We start skipping and before long, skipping has become so common that before long we’ve abandoned our resolution. This doesn’t have to happen though.
Recently I watched Improvement Pill’s series on forming and breaking habits. It reinforced my understanding of how crafting the right mindset, goal and environment is key to establishing achievable and lasting habits. What the series also illuminates well is the need to put into place 2 easy, key supporting behavioral strategies: cuing the habit and a minimum bar of activity that counts toward the habit. These 2 strategies are game-changers.
#1 – Cuing
We’re only human and we’re prone to forgetting to continue a new habit because it hasn’t yet become routine. We’re also not that great at figuring out how to incorporate it into already taxed schedules. For me, my day to day routine mostly depends on whether I’m hosting Airbnb guests. It’s highly changeable, which makes it difficult for me to adopt a set meditation time without being up so early or so late that my meditation will suffer due to sleepiness.
Not having a set time really makes it difficult to either remember to meditate when things get hectic or nags at the back of my mind so badly it becomes a frustrating burden despite my best intentions. It’s the constant stream of “you haven’t meditated yet, when are you going to meditate, why haven’t you meditate yet, don’t forget to meditate” that just builds up sullen insolence within me so that I belligerently don’t want to meditate (the mind is funny that way).
Cuing is a regular occurrence that acts as a cue to do a desired behavior. For instance, maybe you want to exercise regularly. If you get a membership at a gym that’s on your drive home, your daily commute will cue you to exercise because you’ll anticipate and see the gym. This will reinforce your desired behavior of working out unlike if you got a membership at a gym not on your daily route and which would require going out of your way to reach. The first example is a better strategy because it will easily cue you but also require less mental or emotional effort and energy on your part to carry through than with the second, out of the way, example.
For me, this cuing idea made a light bulb go off. I scrambled to think of what I could use as a cue for meditation to create an almost Pavlovian response in behavior. My answer was coffee. I drink it everyday, really enjoy it, and my time is almost always unoccupied when I’m finishing off the cup. By then I’m alert, guests are gone, I’m relaxed, it’s still relatively early in the morning and I’m pretty much free to use the rest of the day however I wish. Coffee was a perfect cue!
I immediately put it into place by designating finishing my coffee as the time to meditate. It works! When I pour my cup I’m almost always pleasantly reminded about meditating. Sometimes I even get the urge to meditate before I drink the cup!
It’s also a great cue because it’s tied to something I enjoy doing: drinking coffee. I start to look forward to meditating because somehow my brain associates it with the reward of coffee but also the pleasant well-being my meditation sessions usually generate. Win!
If you’re looking to implement a meditation practice, try finding a regular cue that works for you. It could be an alarm, brushing your teeth, putting the keys in the door when you come home, showering, or tucking your kids in bed. We’ll be more likely to remember and do our new habit if we have an easy cue for it.
#2 – Minimum Bar of Effort
The trick with developing a habit is making it consistent. Showing up is the most important thing. Surprisingly, each day we do the habit counts far more in our psyche than the actual amount of time spent on the habit. This means that even if you have a goal of meditating 15 minutes a day, you’re more likely to develop a sustainable meditation habit if you sit only for 1 minute but do that every day than if you meditate for 15 minutes but only managed it 3 days out of 5. It’s the showing up that counts.
Additionally, when we show up, we’re getting over the major hurdle in developing a new habit. Showing up is 95% of the effort. Once we’ve managed that, we’re actually likely to do the full amount since we put so much effort up front to get there.
When it comes to developing a meditation practice, come up with a minimum amount of time sitting that acts as your minimum threshold of activity, even if it’s just 1 minute. Commit to always meditating for 1 minute for example. 1 minute may sound lazy but it’s also super easy to achieve. Our minds don’t see it as much effort. Then we sit and since we’re already sitting, we tend to meditate longer than that minimal amount of activity. And even if we don’t, we still reinforce the habit just by showing up. Meanwhile, every day missed weakens our drive almost exponentially. Since merely meeting a minimum strengthens the habit, why not do that?
For me, I’ve set a minimum of 5 minutes, with a fallback of 1 minute. Monday is my free day to do errands. So far it’s working great!
No More Struggling
Most of the effort of developing a new habit has very little to do with willpower. Our mind and energy don’t work that way. Instead we need to engineer our environment and responses to support new behaviors psychologically. Cuing and minimum thresholds can wonderfully reinforce our practice. My meditation habit has certainly solidified thanks to them. Now I sit with minimal fuss. Gone too is the constant nagging and worry over sitting since now it’s tied to my daily coffee drinking. No more stressing over a specific time that I’ll have trouble making due to a varying morning routine.
Try to incorporate cuing and minimum sitting times into your own meditation practice to see if it will help. Hopefully it will work as well for you as it does for me.
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