The Key to Building a Meditation Habit

It’s hard not to have read about the benefits of meditation. It improves focus, reduces stress, increases happiness, improves self-awareness, slows aging, and just makes everything a little better. What’s hard for many is figuring out how to build a meditation habit into their lives.

There are so many great resources to help you with the practice of meditation, whether it’s a mindfulness, focused attention, or compassion and loving kindness practice. No matter which one you choose, what’s clear is the more regularly you meditate, the better the benefits.

Too often though it’s hard to stay consistent with a meditation habit amidst the whitewater of our busy lives. Whether you did a meditation retreat of some length or you’re ready to start out on your own, you’ve been motivated to begin a regular meditation practice. Perhaps you meditated for a few days, then life got in the way. You tried again and the cycle repeated itself leaving you feeling frustrated with the entire endeavor.

So how do you develop a consistent habit of your meditation practice? The basic framework to design any new habit into your life works for building a consistent meditation practice. Based on the methodology created by Stanford’s B.J. Fogg, designing a new habit consists of three items: An Anchor to cue your habit; The Habit or behavior, which is your meditation practice; and the Celebration reward.

Be Mindful of Your Anchor Habits
First you need to determine when to do your meditation. Anchoring your meditation session to an existing habit is how you cue your brain to remember to do it. For example, after you prepare a cup of tea in the morning, sit and meditate for 20 minutes (and immediately celebrate!).

Identifying your existing habit anchors is a mindfulness exercise itself. As you go through your day, write down the habits you do each day such as getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, putting on your shoes, etc. See where a meditation practice would work well for you.

Some habits you do multiple times a day; those are opportunities as well. Perhaps you aren’t ready for a sitting meditation practice and want to get some benefit the brief pause brings between impulse and action. You could use an anchor such as unlocking your computer or your phone, which is a habit you do multiple times a day. For example, after you unlock your computer, take two deep breaths, and immediately smile for yourself to celebrate.

Celebration Creates a Positive Emotion
First, you need to know a bit about the brain science behind habit formation. Emotions create habits. Creating a positive emotion around your meditation practice will lead to a consistent habit. You want to do that by releasing some feel-good neurochemicals into your brain every time you finish your meditation session.

These are the same neurochemicals that get released when you eat that surgery dessert or finish a great workout. You have a positive emotion, and the neurochemicals are released to tell your brain to get more of that. Directing those same neurochemicals toward your positive habits like meditation is the key to building a meditation habit.

That’s where the celebration comes in. Since emotions create habits, you want to use a celebration to release those neurochemicals without having to use a substance like sugar for the feel-good moment. A celebration can be anything as simple as an arm pump to a stand-up, arms in the air, victory pose. You can make it your own as long as you do it as close to the end of your meditation as possible. It’s about putting a smile on your face with a positive emotion so you’ve released the behavior building neurochemicals.

If you’re just beginning, commit to a small meditation practice, maybe 5 minutes. You can always sit for a longer period, but celebrate your 5 minutes even if you sit for 10–20 minutes or longer. This way if you are busy or your motivation on a single day is low, you can always sit for just the 5 minutes and build your habit. Maybe just start out at one minute and that’s your celebration. Keeping the meditation practice small is how you get the habit created in your brain no matter the actual length of any one individual session.

Missing Your Meditation Habit
With a neurochemical release of a positive emotion after a celebration, some can develop the habit within a week or two. If you forget a day, don’t worry. You are still creating your meditation habit. It’ll just takes a little longer. Especially when you are starting to create your meditation practice habit, you may forget. If you remember at another time in the day, take a moment to visualize yourself meditating and then celebrate. You’re still doing a little bit of a positive emotion associated with meditating and therefore helping to build your habit. You won’t get the benefits of the meditation of course, but it’s a little something to give you a positive habit forming victory on those days you miss.

On the weekends, you have different anchors than weekdays. Perhaps you choose a different anchor on the weekends, or you start your habit just on the weekdays. It’s up to you. The more often you do it, the quicker you will develop the habit.

Habit Formation Is a Skill
Habit formation is like meditation in many ways. It’s a practice. The more you practice the skill, the more habits you can create and take control over the mindless habits that drive your day. Meditation itself will help you be more mindful of your current habits.

Just when you realize your mind is wandering while you meditate, you want to be kind to yourself when you return your attention, maybe even smile a little as a celebration to develop your habit of attention while meditating.

The same kindness you use in your meditation translates to developing your mediation habit. Have an experimental mindset. If it’s not working, try changing your anchor or the type and length of your meditation practice or even the celebration.

Keep experimenting, and you’ll find the way.