How I established a daily meditation practice. And made it stick.

Meditation Log, Day 1: Can’t wait to meditate. Found a nice cushion, good spot in my room, I can see it now. Me 2.0 here I come! Oh and today’s session was so great. I feel so balanced and centered.
Day 2: Is it time to meditate again already? Huh, that snuck up pretty quick. I made it! Two days in a row!
Day 3: I’ll make up for it with an extra session this weekend.
Following week: Let’s not talk about.

If you’re anything like me, this song will sound familiar. Be it meditation, or any other long term habit I try to form, if it takes sustained effort, at some point (for me) it has a tendency to fall apart.

I sincerely wanted to keep a daily practice. When I meditated I noticed how much better I felt throughout the day. When I was feeling anxious or stuck, I wished I had stuck to my practice. And yet sooner or later the number of days I skipped grew larger than those on which I sat. Thinking a new angle might work, I dove into the meditation “deep end” and committed to a 10-day silent meditation retreat. If I can make it through this — I thought — a daily practice will be peanuts in comparison. Well, I did make it. And after the retreat I indeed managed to meditate daily. For less than a week. There goes that theory!

In March of 2016 I completed a roughly two year stint of meditating every day. With a few exceptions, my track record was close to 100%. As I reflect on how I (of all people) was able to establish a daily practice and make it stick, here are a few of my lessons learned.

Designing A Practice That Sticks

My approach to meditating daily was essentially based on sheer will. When that continued to unravel, putting in place two elements did the trick:

1: Set an achievable goal (no matter what)

Eyes heavy, body spent from a full day of traipsing through the city: how am I going meditate today? Alarm buzzing, full day of travel followed by dinner with friends or family: when am I going to find the time? I often ran into such quandaries, all of which seemed to conspire to push meditation off my schedule. Knowing that moments like these would keep coming up, I asked myself: what is the minimum amount of time I can sit no matter what my day looks like. For me, the answer was 15 minutes. Whether I was sick, traveling, or it was New Year’s eve, no matter how busy I was, I knew that if it was indeed a priority, I could make room for a quarter-of-an-hour in my day. (Note: at this point I had been meditating — on and off — for a while. If I were just starting off, I may have set that time to something that felt like less of a haul — say 5 minutes).

2: Don’t “break the chain”

Now that I had an achievable daily goal, how was I going to stick to it? For some folks peer pressure works well (buddy system!). For others, some sort of punishment (20 bucks for every day skipped!). For me, the trick was positive reinforcement. The don’t-break-the-chain technique (as described by Jerry Seinfeld) works like this: Get a calendar (or print one off your device). Put it in a visible place (e.g. fridge, bedroom wall). Every day you complete your chosen task, mark it with a big X. The more days in a row you complete said task, the longer the “chain” of Xs will become. Don’t. Break. The Chain. After a few days, I grew proud of my unbroken chain. A couple of weeks in, and the disappointment I anticipated from breaking the chain outweighed my desire to skip that day. I was eager to keep the chain going. It worked! Thanks Jerry!

Making It Work Day-to-Day

As my practice became more consistent, I began to run into some unexpected obstacles. To help keep my practice going, and get deeper into it, I learned some tips and tricks along the way. Among them:

Be scrappy

When on the road, I sometimes struggle to find a spot to meditate. Over time, I’ve learned how to make do with what’s available. Staying at a hotel or friend’s house and missing a cushion to sit on? I stack a couple of pillows and slide them under my butt (sorry friends). On a bus, plane, train, and no cushions or pillows nearby? I’ll grab a seat in a chair, keep my back straight (if I lean back I have a tendency to doze off), and I’ll go for it. Out and about with no private space to sit? Park benches and grassy areas can be great. I’ve noticed that when traveling through airports, some now have spaces for prayer or reflection. Score. And it’s a nice way to get out of a noisy terminal — double score.

The double-stack (left); meditation spaces-a-plenty, if you’re okay with being that oddball with their eyes closed (center, right)

Experiment with time of day

When first starting my daily practice, I found that evenings worked best for me (I had trouble getting motivated in the mornings). Today I’ve grown to prefer mornings: I find it easier to focus because my mind hasn’t yet fully “spun up” with all of the day’s thoughts. It kicks off my day with a nice sense of accomplishment. And it gives me a “touchstone” when I face a challenge that day. Maybe that’ll change in the future, and experimenting with when I practice has kept it feeling workable and fresh.

Noise can be a friend (and so can earplugs)

A dog barking. A car honking its horn. A conversation down the hall. Depending on the time and place, these sounds can be hard for me to escape, and can made it difficult for me to meditate. A teacher once shared that rather than fight such distractions, I could use them to help me. Just as challenging our muscles through lifting weights strengthens them, meditating in a noisy environment can help sharpen our focus. Today I try to welcome these sounds. That said, when I’m feeling particularly distracted, I’ll throw in some earplugs. I’ve found that playing some white noise on a speaker helps too.

Insert when necessary

Use a timer

When meditating I often have a poor sense of time. Was that 10 minutes or 15? When I first began sitting I would find myself distracted by that question, especially if my sit fell on a busy day (and I really needed to get going once my time was up). Using a timer helped solve this problem. The basic smartphone app will do. I’ve enjoyed using a meditation timer (one of many on your app store) which gives me some added features: a 30 second “warm-up” to get in place before the time starts. A nice chime to ease me into and out of my sit. And a helpful log of my past sits.

So many bells

Do it with others

I always thought of meditation as a solo activity and, while 99% of my practice is by myself, I’ve been surprised at how practicing with others shifts me into a lower gear. Maybe it’s the “energy” of being in a group. Or just the shame of getting up and quitting before anyone else (I’m outta here!). Time and again I’ve found that group sits have upped my game (Meetup is a good resource for finding them). Also, when meditating in groups they’ve generally gone longer than what I was used to practicing on my own, which, painful as it was in the moment, made my daily 15 minute practice feel shorter and easier.

Some years ago, while working a project for a client in the Middle East, in the middle of the day my office would clear out. Where had people gone? One day one of the employees took me a few floors up and showed me: a large room, chairs pulled to the side, where employees would gather to conduct their afternoon prayers. How interesting, I thought, that there existed a place where, in a professional setting, taking time for self-reflection was built into the daily schedule (and into the office space!).

In the US some of the companies we work for (and public spaces we cross) are getting better at accommodating quiet reflection. That said, in my experience, to make it work no matter what we still often need to be scrappy. On the plus side, as I think back to the moments when I felt I had an excuse to skip a day — because the space wasn’t easily available, I was embarrassed to do it in front of a family member, I was dealing with a mosquito, or my ears were ringing from a night out on the city — it’s the moments where I pushed through that in retrospect most strengthened my practice. And sustained my commitment to it. An experience that has — incidentally — bled over to some new daily habits, such as curbing my sweet tooth or avoiding social media.

Today my practice continues to take work, and I’ve got my work cut out for me to stay focused when I sit, and continue to go deeper. In the meantime, flipping through my meditation log gives me a sense of accomplishment, and boost of encouragement to keep it going. Here’s to your practice doing the same for you.

Happy sit.

Questions? Comments? Tips and tricks that have worked for you? Shout it out below!