The Do's and Don'ts of Building Your Meditation Practice


by WITHIN Cofounder Hannah Knapp

Thinking about putting meditation at the top of that list of new habits you want to develop for the new year? Before you do, make sure you know why it’s worth it to double down on meditation, and exactly what will help you make it a real habit - and what won’t.

Why is meditation a good habit to get into?

You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a single other new habit that has the potential to have more positive impact on your life. The scientific research on mindfulness meditation in particular is kind of astonishing: rewiring your brain to spend less time stressed out, and more time thinking clearly, has benefits that go way beyond lessening anxiety and sharpening focus (although it does that, too!). As your body spends less time in stress mode, your immune system gets a boost, making it easier for you to fight off illness and get better quickly when you do get sick.

When you’re less stressed out, you also experience a deeper appreciation for life, getting in touch with what really matters to you. As you do, it becomes easier to find the motivation to change the parts of your life that just aren’t in line with what you want your life to be about, and let go of the habits that aren’t serving you. 

The Do’s and Don’ts of Building Your Practice

Now that you’re clear on why meditation is a good candidate for that list of new habits, how do you set yourself up for success? When it comes to making anything a regular habit, including meditation, there are sure-fire ways to sabotage yourself. As a meditation teacher, I’ve seen the advice from the habit-building experts backed up by first-hand experience with students at WITHIN. Here are my favorite mistakes, and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Create lofty goals that bear no relation to your current lifestyle.

If you really want to be sure your meditation practice never gets off the ground, start by saying to yourself, “Meditating first thing in the morning is a good idea. I’ll set my alarm and get up 20 minutes earlier starting tomorrow.” I can pretty much guarantee that after day three, you’ll sleep right through that alarm - if not sooner.

Instead, tie what you want to do to something you’re already doing. Say to yourself, “What do I already do every day, that I can meditate before or after, or even during it?”

For example, if you commute, could you meditate while you’re on the train or the bus? You’re definitely going to do your commute (at least 5 days a week...), so when you find yourself sitting there, it’ll be that much easier to fit in your meditation.

Or, if you’re a night owl, you could make meditation part of your wind-down routine: after you watch that last show or spend those last minutes online, sit for 10 minutes and then get into pajamas and go to bed. Or, if you do happen to be an early riser, fit the meditation in-between other parts of your morning routine.

Students often ask me, “How long should I meditate?” My answer is always, “The amount of time you can realistically do every day.” That could be as short as ten minutes, or even just three breaths.

When you’re building your habit, the worst thing you can do is go big. Start small, and build up your endurance, just like you would with your muscles at the gym.

Mistake #2: Assume you’ll remember to meditate, and stay committed, without officially scheduling time for it.

There isn’t a whole lot of accountability if you skip that meditation session you intended to do right before bed to watch another episode - or if you accept a meeting someone else wants to schedule during the time you mentally set aside to meditate. Nobody else has any idea that you’ve made that commitment, so it’s easy to let yourself off the hook and fall out of the habit before it even gets started.

Instead, put your meditation sessions in your calendar. We’re much more likely to do things that we’ve scheduled, than things we just say we’ll do.

It’s not just that someone else is aware of our commitment, if they happen to try to book something else during that time; it’s also that putting that block of time “on paper” (real or virtual) makes the commitment more real to your own brain.

Mistake #3: Don’t keep track of your progress or reward yourself for milestones.

The power of goals lies in our relationship to them - and you don’t know where you stand in relation to your meditation practice goal, unless you track your progress. If you want to sit every day for 10 minutes, but don’t make a note of whether you did it or not, you quickly lose momentum - and, you lose the opportunity to congratulate yourself when you hit milestones.

Just like at work, when you’re recognized for making progress, you’re more motivated to keep going.

You can use Insight Timer or another meditation app to track your meditation sessions, for example, or just an old-fashioned tick-mark on a paper calendar for every day you do it. The tracking method doesn’t really matter; just seeing how many days in a row you’ve stuck with your habit is super motivating for continuing with it.

Give yourself rewards for hitting certain milestones: a week of sitting every day, or a certain amount of time spent meditating.

Tracking your progress, and celebrating it, is easy with many of the meditation and habit-tracking apps out there. It’s one of the ways they really can help you build your practice.

That said, there’s a difference between tracking your progress, and getting so fanatical about not missing a meditation session that you say you did it when you didn’t (or say you sat longer than you did). At that point, technology isn’t helping you. If you find yourself logging time spent on the cushion just to keep up your “streak,” it’s time to ditch the app.

You can amplify the positive effects of tracking your progress by having an “accountability buddy”: sharing your goals with someone else and letting them know how you’re doing. They can help you get back on the wagon if you fall off, and provide motivation to keep going.

Mistake #4: Go it alone.

Although it might seem like meditation is a solitary venture, and so you shouldn’t need anyone else to help you build your practice, that assumption that can set you up for failure.

Having a group of people you meet with regularly who are likewise building their own practice is a huge support to your solitary sessions, and being able to ask questions of a real live teacher can help you over the inevitable humps you encounter.

You can find meditation groups wherever you are (and even meditate with people online). But if you’re working in downtown San Francisco, try a class at WITHIN. We created the studio to help people like you start and stick with your practice, by offering short classes that fit into your daily schedule. Many of our students book a class just to make sure they really do take the time to meditate.

Having a meditation class that you commit to going to in advance, as part of your workday, helps you avoid mistakes #1-3, and set yourself up for success as you build your practice.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect that sitting still next to someone, while you both have your eyes closed, would make a difference. But just knowing that you’re not alone helps you stick with the session all the way to the end. Everyone is helping everyone keep going, silently.

Plus, at the end of each class, there’s Q&A with the teacher, giving you the opportunity to hear about other students’ challenges and breakthroughs, and to ask your own questions. You can take those ideas back with you to enrich and support your solo practice - and come back with more questions whenever you need more answers.

There’s nothing like a challenge to get you going.

This January, we’re offering you an even easier way to start and sustain your meditation habit: the #MindfulStart Meditation Challenge. For four weeks, the teachers at WITHIN will give you daily encouragement and accountability to help you start your meditation practice, and stick with it.

All you need to do is decide how often you want to come to class, and we’ll provide a whole array of bonuses to support your growing practice.

Click here to learn more about #MindfulStart and register! (Early bird pricing ends January 14th, so check it out now for the best value!)