You can know all about the benefits of meditation. You can know that it’s good for your mental health, offers protection against depression and anxiety, makes you happier, boosts your intelligence, slows aging in the brain, and even makes you physically healthier. You can know all this, and still find it hard to set up a daily meditation practice. You might find that you meditate for a few days, but then miss a day or two, or even find that weeks have gone by and you’ve hardly meditated at all.
Not meditating is a habit. It’s your default. It’s a habit you’ve had for most of your life. And it’s a powerful habit. Meditating regularly is a new habit, and it’s competing with the older and more established one. This means that for most people, setting up a daily meditation practice is hard. But there are things we can do that make it easier. So here are seven tips for setting up a rock-solid daily meditation habit. (If you’re interested, these tips come from my online course, “Get Your Sit Together,” which will help you become a daily meditator.)
1. Lower the Bar
One of the most common mistakes people make in trying to set up a daily meditation habit is to aim too high. They think that a “proper” meditation should be something like 20, or 30, or 40 minutes in length. And while it’s wonderful to have aspirations to sit for that length of time, it’s almost inevitable when there will be days when that won’t happen because you’re just too damned busy. By all means, aim to sit for as long as you want, but if you don’t want to end up skipping days (and then slipping back into the easy and established habit of not meditating at all), then accept that it’s OK to meditate for as little as five minutes a day.
You can even forget about sitting for 20 or 40 minutes, and just make that your aim: you’ll sit every day, even if it’s just five minutes. Five minutes is not hard to manage. And once you’ve set up your daily habit, it’s not hard to extend the length of time you meditate for.
2. Don’t use calendar days
When you think about meditating daily, you probably think in terms of meditating within each 24-hour period that runs from midnight to midnight. But it’s much more helpful to think in terms of your days starting when you wake up and ending when you go to sleep again. That way, when you have a crazy day of running around, and you don’t even get home until midnight, you can have a quick sit and you’ve still meditated that day.
3. Keep a visual reminder
Eventually a daily habit becomes something you just do. You don’t need to put “brush teeth” in your planner. You just do it. That’s the eventual aim with your meditation practice. But at the start of establishing a new habit you need reminders. Those reminders have to be prominent, so that you actually see them. A simple calendar—preferably a paper rather than an electronic one—makes an ideal reminder, especially when it’s in a high traffic area in your house, like the refrigerator door. Why paper? It’s just there, in plain view. You don’t have to make any effort to see it. You don’t have to pick up a phone or open a computer. You don’t have to remember to open an app. Those things are barriers, and you don’t want barriers. There are enough of those things in our lives. With a paper calendar on the fridge door, you’ll see the reminder just by living in your house.
A calendar is also a way of reinforcing that you’re making progress. Put a large check-mark on each day you meditate. Check-marks are visually more positive than X’s. If you have a green marker pen then that’s even better. Green is the color of success! As you complete days of meditation, you’ll start forming a chain of check marks, which is very encouraging. You won’t want to break the chain!
4. Use a mantra
No, I’m not talking about chanting “Om.” If we have a history of falling away from our meditation practice, one of the things that can happen is that we develop a self-image along the lines of “someone who can’t meditate regularly.” That happened to me. I saw other people who were able to meditate daily, apparently with no difficulties. But no matter how I tried, I’d miss a day here or there, or sometimes not meditate for days at a time.
So I developed the mantra, “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.” I would say this to myself even during my meditation practice. I’d repeat it in the shower, while walking, while driving my car, before going to sleep and on waking in the morning. Of course you actually have to meditate as well! But the mantra starts changing your self-view. And in time you simply don’t want to miss a day, because you see yourself as someone who meditates every day, and you’ll make every effort to get your butt on your cushion.
5. Use guided meditations
If it helps, use guided meditations. Setting up a new habit of meditating daily involves a fair amount of work, so let someone else do the work of guiding you. Even for experienced meditators, listening to a good guided meditation can help you develop new skills, and embrace new perspectives. For beginning meditators, guided meditations can make the difference between having a sit you feel happy about versus one where you spend almost all your time in distraction.
6. Don’t worry about the quality
A sit is a sit. We’d all like to have every meditation be calm and blissful, but realistically you’re going to be distracted a lot of the time. The thing is, though, that even the distracted meditations are helpful. So just do it. Any sit you do is a good sit, and the only bad sits are the ones you don’t do.
7. Congratulate yourself!
In developing a habit, there has to be a reward. You have to feel better about doing the thing than doing some alternative. Even in brushing your your teeth in the morning you get the reward of having a nice minty flavor in your mouth and you get rid of any night-time odors. That feels good. You’d feel worse if you didn’t do it.
Meditation can be inherently rewarding, but it can also be a struggle. And there are plenty of other things you could do instead that give instant rewards, like checking Facebook or reading an interesting article on the web. In the face of that kind of competition it becomes almost essential to consciously reward yourself, and probably the best way of doing that is to congratulate yourself. So at the end of your meditation, give yourself a clear, verbal message of congratulations: “Yay me!” Try standing up and raising your arms in salute, like a running crossing the finish line. This brings about pleasant physiological and psychological effects: in other words it makes you feel good!
Then, check off your calendar. Feel good about putting a big, bold check mark on today’s box. And feel good at watching the chain getting longer! The more you associate pleasant feelings with your meditation practice, the more you’ll feel you want to do it. Rewards are motivating.
So, those are just seven things you can do to help support you as you set up a daily meditation habit that can improve your life in all the ways I mentioned in the opening paragraph. There are many more tips on offer in my 28-day online course, “Get Your Sit Together,” which starts on January 1st. Click here to check it out!