Forming a habit
Meditation will give you benefit even if you tried it once but to change your life it needs to become a consistent habit. This post will teach you how to build and maintain this habit using a proven method. You can fast track your progress and not waste 20 years to embrace this ancient wisdom practice as I did.
Contrary to popular belief building a habit does not take 21 days. This figure was originally quoted in the book called “Psycho-Cybernetics” written by a surgeon Maxwell Maltz. Dr. Maltz observed that it took on average 3 weeks for a person to adjust to changes in their body posts surgery.
This 21-day figure was propagated by the personal development industry and became one of the undisputed inaccuracies. Dr. Maltz’s discovery was contextual and linked to a particular set of scenarios. In later psychology studies later it was discovered that forming a habit takes 66 days or two months.
Based on my experience in 60 days a newly forming habit progresses through a gradual strength build-up when maintaining new behavior becomes easier and easier. I adopted principles from James Clear book “Atomic habits” for simple and practical steps to make your meditation practice stick so no excuses guys! I recommend the “Atomic Habits” book in the last part of this writing as a useful guide to creating new behavior or breaking unhealthy habits.
A structure of a habit
Any habit goes through this cycle:
“Trigger – Craving – Response–Reward”. Using ice-cream as an example this would look like this:
Trigger – you walk down the supermarket frozen section aisle and see the fridge with lots of bright “Sale” stickers on ice-cream packages inside.
Craving – your mind responds with excitement and you may even have watering mouth
Response – you walk to the fridge grab a tub of your favorite cookies and cream flavor and put it in your shopping basket.
Reward – you feel satisfied looking at the ice-cream in your basket. This feeling gets even stronger when you have a taste of ice-cream in your mouth at home.
The next time you see bright yellow stickers in the supermarket fridge you will follow through these steps almost on autopilot. How do I know that? Well, this used to be one of my triggers with a few extra kilos of body weight as a result. Let’s examine how we could use this force of habit to a good cause like meditation.
4 rule to make a habit work for you
1. Make it easy
When it comes to your mindfulness meditation habit start small with two minutes for the first two weeks to make it easy. You do not have to sit in a lotus pose unless you really want to. Simply lie down on the floor or sit in a comfortable chair. Meditate in the same spot of your house without going anywhere too far. I used to meditate on the beach when I lived close to it. Once I moved houses it became impractical and I started meditating on the living room floor. Also, if you are a beginner reading meditation instructions while trying to learn the practice is challenging. I recommend using a timer on your mobile phone for the first 3 minutes sessions. To signal the start and end of each stage you can use a free meditation timer app like the Insight Timer. With practice, you will be able to feel when you are ready to move from counting to focusing on breathing without timer intervals bells. Another suggestion is to use guided mediation from the apps particularly for loving-kindness. Search for Mark Zelinsky loving-kindness mediation on Insight Timer. Mark offers a 10 and a 20 minutes versions which you can choose depending on your time commitment and skill.
2. Make it desirable
In the example with ice-cream, the desirable part works by itself as sugar cravings are hardwired into our brain. While the mediation habit is tricky at the beginning there are still qualities that can make it attractive to stick with the practice. I meditate before I have morning coffee. In the beginning, the thought of having a coffee after made me feel excited about meditation. Later I started craving the feeling of calm and exploring new qualities of breath while meditating. I feel that this is another hardwired quality in our brain but it is less addictive than sugar and will get stronger then you re-discovered it.
3. Make it obvious
Just like with the bright coloured sale stickers you need a reminder for the habit to be visible. With meditation it could be your yoga mat, meditation bench, timer on your phone or a sight of a Tibetan singing bowl. You have a freedom to choose something that you associate your meditation habit with and place it somewhere where you can see it clearly.
4. Make it rewarding
This rule seems to be a repetition of the first one however it is not. Have you ever had a strong craving for a particular type of food but once you started eating it the enjoyment was not there? Apparently these two are biochemically different processes and we need to engage both when working with habits. In the ice-cream example, that feeling comes from the fullness in your stomach, sweet taste, and texture. Eventually, the immediate results from mediation will be that reward by itself but you can treat yourself a nice tea, smoothie, or something that you find will motivate you to continue. As long as its sustainable, healthy and does not affect the simplicity principle.
Another important note is that habits are contextual i.e. your wanted behavior is more likely to become automatic if performed at the same time and place. Because of that, I recommend you to choose the same spot in your house and practice consistently at the same time of the day. Please do not meditate in your bed as it confuses your body as it does not know what to expect and you are likely to fall asleep. If you already have a morning routine you can use something called “habit stacking” which makes creating new habits easier. For instance, in my morning routine, I started with making my bed every morning. When this became an autopilot habit I added a short yoga workout. After a while, my yoga became a strong habit I added meditation. Existing habits will help to support a newly added one. And you can piece a few of these together one at a time like beads on a necklace string.
To succeed in anything long term you need a system. Want to write a book – get up early every morning and write. Decided to run a marathon – start running 3 times a week gradually increasing distance. Habit creation is in essence building a system to produce an end result.
Systems eat talent for breakfast. Even highly gifted individuals need consistency to reach long term goals. That is also how average Joe like you and me can gain an advantage in life.
The habit rules above work equally well for any other goal that you have. Apply it consistently and you will get the results. It is also possible to change habits that do not service you by breaking down the cycle and reversing 4 rules.