Meditate Regularly with These Behavior Hacks
Naveed Ahmad is the co-founder and CEO of Flourish, which helps people build lasting habits. We asked him how he would go about planting the seeds of a new meditation practice. He told us how he’d helped a friend of his get started, using the habit-formation research of Stanford professor BJ Fogg that guides the work he does at Flourish.
Alex seemed to have it all, but she was miserable.
She was a busy professional working at a big consulting firm, delivering stellar results to massive companies — this was her dream job!
Over time, the late nights and the grueling travel started to wear on her. Spending most of her free time in hotels and airports was not conducive to maintaining any of the routines she was used to.
Her physical and emotional health took a backseat to her work. Constantly tired and always on the go, she made honest mistakes with clients — despite her best efforts. Coffee just wasn’t cutting it anymore. This strained her relationship with her boss, and in her sleep-deprived state, she had difficulty navigating this challenging relationship.
Alex was stuck in a vicious cycle of anxiety and self-doubt. She felt trapped.
She expressed her frustration to me about a year ago, and I could empathize. It wasn’t too long ago that I would land on my couch on a Thursday evening feeling physically and emotionally depleted after being on the road all week. Shoveling down the overpriced takeout I had expensed while watching New Girl just didn’t seem to fill my cup. At least it numbed me enough to avoid crying.
Alex asked me how I got over it, and I shared with her how helpful meditation has been in my life. With a daily practice I’ve dedicated over 300 hours to, I’ve noticed a drastic reduction in stress and anxiety, and a huge improvement in my overall sense of well-being.
One reason I’m sane (or at least I like to think so) — despite working long hours and late nights, and maintaining a busy travel schedule — is because of my consistent meditation routine.
Alex was aware of the benefits of meditation — she had even been to a few classes and tried several meditation apps, but like the majority of app users, she hadn’t meditated more than a few times.
Like most of us, she struggled to make meditation a part of her daily routine. She figured out what you probably already know: building new routines is hard.
Building a meditation routine is a lot like planting a tree — there are three phases: Plant, Grow, Sustain. Below I’ll walk you through the goal in each phase, the key tactics that will help you get there, and how each played out for Alex.
1) Plant: When planting a tree, you start with finding the right place on your land to plant a really small version of the tree – i.e. the seedling.
Building a new meditation habit is exactly the same. You want to start by a) finding the right place in your day to b) plant a micro-version of your meditation routine (what we call a seed behavior).
a) Picking the right place in your day
Now if your land is a pedicured garden, you can probably pick anywhere to plant your seedling and it’d grow the same. But for most of us, our days aren’t the equivalent of calm, flat, pedicured gardens. They’re more like wild rocky terrain. So picking where to plant the seedling can be particularly challenging. The key thing to look for is where you’ll consistently have the space and time for your fully developed meditation habit. Nine times out of ten, this happens in the morning. It doesn’t always, but that’s where we suggest you look first. Once you’ve found roughly the right time in your day, you want to find a habit that you’re going to “link” this meditation habit to. Typical morning habits include brushing teeth, going to the bathroom, changing your clothes, and making coffee.
In Alex’s case, she picked the chair on her porch as the location and brushing her teeth in the morning as the habit to link her meditation routine to.
b) Turning your meditation routine into a seed
I’m not going to lie to you – building a new habit can be hard to do. And while many of you overachievers might enjoy a challenge, if you really want to build a new habit, it’s really important to start by making it easy. If you’ve only meditated a few times before, or even if you’ve meditated many times before, but don’t really have a regular meditation routine, starting by trying to meditate 5 times a week for 20 minutes each morning is like going from 0 to 60 in 1.4 seconds – it’s near impossible.
Instead, shrink your meditation routine down to the smallest version that still resembles it – just taking 3 deep breaths.
If you can’t get into a routine of taking 3 deep breaths most mornings, you’re not going to be able to meditate for 20 minutes most mornings.
Example: After Alex brushed her teeth in the morning, she sat in the chair on her porch and took 3 deep breaths.
To recap, Alex’s place in her day is defined by her chair on her porch after she brushes her teeth. Her seed behavior is taking 3 deep breaths.
Alex gave this a try for a few days, and noticed that she was easily able to take 3 deep breaths most mornings (not every morning – we’re not machines!). Her seed was taking root, so we moved her into the Grow phase.
2) Grow: Once the seedling has taken root, it begins to grow – first into a a sapling, and then into a more robust tree. Your new routine will do the same. This phase can be more of an art than a science because the seedling version of your habit can be fragile, so it’s important you take it slow.
In many ways your habit will grow on its own – as you meditate more, it will typically feel easier and you will naturally want to meditate for longer because it feels soooo good. This is just the learning curve in action.
To nudge yourself in this process, experiment with increasing the duration when it feels like you have the space and time. On a day when it feels hard to do a 5 minute mediation, either because you have an early meeting or just aren’t feeling it, do the 5 minutes and move on. On a day when meditating for 5 minutes feels really easy, try going for 7, just to see what it feels like. You’ll often realize that 7 minutes is just as easy as 5 minutes. Pretty soon, 7 minutes will become your new norm, and you’ll be traveling up the learning curve.
Example: After the first couple weeks of locking in the seed version of her habit, Alex slowly ramped up the duration of her meditation over the course of many weeks – 10 deep breaths, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 7 minutes, 10 minutes, etc.
This stage is where habits fall apart most easily. Anyone can start. But keeping it going? This is where Fogg’s research can help you most.
3) Sustain: Your sapling habit has turned into a mature tree. It’s stronger, but will still require nourishment to sustain its growth.
In Alex’s case, she transitioned to a new project about 6 weeks into the program, which impacted her travel schedule. The change created a challenge for her routine, so she had to decrease frequency and duration for a couple weeks until her habit re-stabilized. Then she was able to ramp it back up again.
The more you perform a habit, the more it becomes part of your identity.
For example, some people run because they know they should. Other people run because they feel great afterwards. But runners run because that’s who they are, it’s what they do. When you have performed your meditation habit for a while, you’ll start to see that you meditate because that’s just what you do. Once you’re at that point, you’ve got a lasting habit on your hands.
If you’ve tried to build and sustain healthy habits before and it’s been a challenge, you’re not alone. The reality is creating and keeping new habits is hard. Flourish is a new service that helps busy professionals overcome the challenges of maintaining new habits. You can learn more about it here, and get additional tips on how to make meditation a habit you keep.
At WITHIN, we love helping beginners start their meditation practice, and stick with it. Being a part of our community is a fantastic way to support your new habit. Join our #MindfulStart Meditation Challenge, and see for yourself!