Meditation is incredible, but it’s also extremely hard to make a daily habit.
When I first found myself drowning in anxiety several years ago, mindfulness was at the top of the list (behind medication) that several different therapists prescribed for me.
So, I fumbled through Google looking for some quality advice about how to meditate — and actually stick with it — that wasn’t some short, SEO bullshit article. After some time, I couldn’t find any useful, in-depths guides to teach me what it would take to meditate daily.
Beginning the practice was easy, and there was actually quite a bit of information on that.
Find a quiet place to sit.
Focus on your breath.
When your mind wanders, bring attention back to the breath.
But to me, that wasn’t the hard part. I knew how to do it, and I knew it was good for me. Where I struggled was consistently showing up to the table.
The Meditation Conundrum
Meditation is a fairly simple practice, so why is it so damn hard to muster up the energy to do it every single day?
It’s not a large time investment. Just 5 minutes of meditation per day has shown to elicit some pretty radical benefits.
Everyone’s got that kind of time.
Except I still struggled.
As the years went by, I slowly learned about habits, specifically how to form and make them stick.
It took a TON of trial and error to get to the point where I was finally meditating on a regular basis, but dammit, I got there.
Just recently, a friend approached me, knowing the past I’ve had with anxiety, and he asked me how he could start meditating regularly to experience its benefits. I wasn’t sure where to begin. I hadn’t really formulated my experience into a step-by-step solution for anyone.
So, I started searching Google again. Curious to see if anything actually useful was out there. I was pleasantly surprised to find at least some articles sharing tips and others hacks on how to meditate regularly besides the typical ‘how to meditate’ advice.
But, there was still nothing comprehensive that walked you through step-by-step how to form the habit.
So here I am, trying to solve that problem and give the world a completely free resource — a guide if you will — to creating a daily habit from meditation.
If, after reading this guide, you feel there is anything at all I missed that deserves inclusion, please don’t hesitate to reach out and clue me in. I want this to be an awesome resource for you and everyone else trying to adopt the incredible habit that is meditation.
Let’s dive in.
Benefits of Meditation
Dan Harris says meditation makes you 10% happier. I believe it also makes you at least 10% more awesome (based on my personal, unrecorded studies).
Meditation has been shown to:
- Relieve stress, calm your mind, and help you relax
- Reduce anxiety and anxious feelings
- Promote habit change through self-awareness to unhealthy behaviors
- Increase awareness of surroundings, help you to appreciate the simple things, and be more present
- Provide clarity and techniques you can use in everyday life
- Improve focus, memory, self-control, happiness
- Promote healthier cardiovascular health, immune health, and other medical benefits based on increasing amounts of medical research.
I’ve personally experienced many of the benefits above from my own meditation practice. In addition, these are few things I’ve noticed that tend to be less main stream benefits than the ones above:
- Better, happier relationships
- More self-love
- Greater sense of purpose and fulfillment
- The pause, as recognized by Leo Babauta, that helps bring awareness to and overcome our basic human urges
Some of the best benefits mediation offers, like my shortened list above, are actually hard to explain. Things like increased self-awareness, special moments of clarity, and a deeper understanding of your motives and actions.
These aren’t tangible things for you to focus on or improve, but you’ll know what I’m talking about if you take up your own meditative practice.
The greatest benefit of all, in my opinion, is the joy and relaxation provided by simply sitting for a few moments with no agenda other than experiencing the present moment.
Creating a lasting habit is no simple task. There’s basically an entire science behind engineering good habits into your life.
For simplicity’s sake, you probably don’t need everything there is to know about habits to start meditating. What you should know though, is that there is a simple, 3 step cycle that every habit follows. It’s been proven time and time again by just about every behavioral psychologist out there. The cycle is called the “3 R’s of Habit Change”.
The reminder is the trigger that initiates the desired (or undesired) behavior. The routine is the actual behavior you perform. And the reward is the reinforcement, or benefit, from doing the behavior.
I first picked this up from James Clear and his blog. He initially learned it from BJ Fogg, a Stanford Professor who’s spent most of his adult life studying human behavior.
Let’s take a gander at the 3 R’s in action with a real life example:
Your doorbell rings. This is the start of the habit loop. The sound produced by the doorbell acts as a trigger for you to get up and answer the door.
You see who’s at the door. Typically, when the doorbell rings, you get up to answer it. This is a habit you have formed over repeated experiences throughout your life.
You learn who’s at the door. Your reward is the benefit you received from performing the behavior. In this example, you satisfy your curiosity of wondering who is at the door.
Doing this enough times with a positive reward (i.e. the pizza man and not a serial killer) and you form a positive feedback loop in your brain. Basically, you learn that the next time the doorbell rings, you should answer it.
This is how a single behavior is turned into an autonomous habit over time.
Hopefully, you understand the science behind how habits work. Now, let’s walk through the specific steps you can take to make meditation a daily habit.
How to Meditate Daily
Planning Your New Meditation Habit
1. Set a goal and make it small
Back in 1979, a goal-setting study was done on new grads from Harvard’s MBA program. The graduates were asked a simple question: “Have you set clear, written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them?”
When the answers were analyzed:
- 84% of graduates had no specific goals
- 13% had goals, but never wrote them down
- 3% had clear, written goals with plans to achieve them
Guess who came out on top?
Those individuals who had clear, written goals and plans to achieve them went on to make 10x as much as the other 97%…combined.
Right now, you’re going to set a goal for yourself and then write it down. For the purpose of this post, let’s pretend you’re starting from scratch, with meditation never being something you used to do daily.
Setting a goal for meditation is pretty simple. Almost always, you will want to set a time-based goal, since there’s really no other way to go about it. I guess you could do something like 10 breaths in and out, but for simplicity’s sake, just stick to a time-based goal for now.
The goal that you set should be small. In fact, start so small that it seems ridiculous.
When I started meditating, I set a goal for just 2 minutes a day. If I hit that mark, I considered the day a success, and I marked an ‘X’ on my calendar (we’ll get to that in a minute).
Try setting your goal somewhere between 1–3 minutes. I don’t recommend starting any higher than that. I started with 2 minutes because it was stupid easy for me. I wouldn’t need much motivation to get it done. Sitting down to meditate for that short duration would be a no-brainer.
When you want to form a habit, consistency is MUCH more important than performance. That’s why I made sure to pick a target I could hit every day without fail.
You can always scale this up later on once the habit is formed.
Action: Write down your goal and put it somewhere you’ll see it as a reminder. For example, “I will meditate every day for 2 minutes.” Write that down on a piece of paper and stick it on your bathroom mirror.
2. Make meditation a priority
Having a written goal is a necessary first step. Once you’ve committed to that goal, however, then you have to actually make time for it in your life.
Personally, I have a productivity system in which I prioritize my days the night before. I use 3×5 notecards, which you can get from Amazon for about $5. I physically write down the 1–3 most important things I need to get done for the next day.
When I was forming my meditation habit, you can bet that was on my card every night.
So, prioritize your meditation practice. Then schedule a specific time to do it.
This makes your actions intentional and is a good reminder since some days you honestly might forget.
Scheduling a time will act as your habit trigger (remember those from above?). When it’s time to meditate, you’ll simply stop what you’re doing and begin with your meditation practice.
Note: If you absolutely hate scheduling a specific time to meditate, that’s OK. We can still make it work. Sometimes I just like to set a soft deadline for myself.
Remember, that we’re forming a habit here. You only need to meditate for a minute or two each day, every day, to continue building your habit. If it’s 10:30 at night and you realize “Oh shit, I haven’t meditated at all today,” then no sweat. Get into position and meditate until you’ve reached your goal. Boom, you stuck with your habit.
When I’m working to soft deadlines, I’ll usually schedule a daily recurring event with a reminder at the end of the day as my last resort.
Action: Make your new meditation practice a priority. Include it into your daily planning system, if you have one. If not, schedule a specific time in your calendar — make it recurring — and plan to meditate then.
3. Pick your zone
The final step in planning your meditation habit is to have a place in mind for you to practice.
It’s not super important where you do it, but preferably somewhere that’s quiet with limited distractions.
I prefer to meditation in the mornings, downstairs in the living room on a yoga mat, after I let my dog outside.
My fiancé, Julie, is normally still asleep or upstairs getting ready. It’s perfect. It’s mostly quiet. And there are the relaxing sounds of nature to listen to, which in my mind, help to enhance the meditative experience.
If Julie happens to walk downstairs, she notices I’m doing that weird thing I always do, and then I’ll smile, say “hi”, and continue with my practice. No biggie.
In the grand scheme of things, forming a new habit is all about making the desired behavior as simple as possible. Having your own meditation zone picked out ahead of time leaves you with one less thing to hold you back from doing it.
Action: Plan out your meditation “safe space”.
4. Design your environment
Lots of people ask me why it’s so hard to meditate. Whenever the time comes, they look for every excuse in the book not to do it.
Procrastination sets in hard. They:
- Reach for their phone
- Open up Facebook
- Scroll through for about 20 minutes. Shit.
- Then they open up Reddit.
- Another 20 minutes go by.
This is something everyone deals with, myself included. So how can you, like the rest of us, get out of this vicious cycle?
Well for starters, the three steps above will each help. But for those needing a little extra kick in the butt, that’s where environment design can come in handy.
Basically, how can you design your surroundings and rig the game in your favor?
For one, you could turn off your phone and put it in the other room.
Or, you could use a website blocker like Cold Turkey to eliminate distractions from your laptop.
You might also try getting into your zone a little before it’s go time. This would eliminate the need for you to get up again, adding to the resistance you might feel to meditate.
Environment design is something that works extremely well for other habits like healthier eating. You can make forming that habit easier by throwing away all of your unhealthy snacks.
Unfortunately, it’s not as straightforward with meditation, but it can still be a valuable asset if you try.
Action: Brainstorm some ways to design your environment. How can you make sitting down to meditate easier for you?
Next up: Meditating. Ommm……
5. Get out there and meditate
Now that you’ve devised your plan, it’s time to get down to business.
Meditate for 2 minutes. Or for however long of an initial goal you set for yourself.
The first day you successfully do this, maybe you meditate for 2 minutes. Or, perhaps you get in the zone and last a little bit longer. Awesome! Even though you set out to do just 2 minutes, it’s perfectly fine — encouraged, even — if you go longer.
Whatever you choose to do, at least make sure to meditate your bare minimum goal. That’s what counts when forming a habit.
So, let’s say that you’ve gone a couple days in a row and you’re absolutely crushing it. Two minutes seems like child’s play, and you want to up the ante.
Nein! No. Nope. Nuh uh. No way.
I want you to promise me not to change your goal.
I’ve also been at the point where I start thinking, “Wow, I’m much more awesome than I thought. I should probably set my goal a little higher.”
I see this with people far too often. Inevitably, there’s going to be a time where you’re not going to be able to hit your new, impressive goal. Then you lose momentum, get discouraged, and think about calling it quits.
But guess what? You can always meditate for 2 simple minutes. So stick with that. If after a week you show up and meditate every day, then you can increase the duration another minute or two. Once that becomes second nature, go ahead and bump it up again.
This is how you ease your way into a new habit. Start stupid small and then gradually increase your goal each week (or however long it takes for you to get comfortable with that duration).
Action: Showtime. Meditate today for your target duration.
6. Reward yourself
Who said forming habits had to be all work and no play? If you remember the 3 R’s of habits, reward was the third one, which happens to be the most fun. Plus, it’s integral to your success, says science. All you have to do is reward yourself for working on your new meditation habit.
Sometimes, a gentle pat on the back or “hell yeah, Jason!” can be effective. Personally, I prefer rewards that are more enjoyable for me. Things like:
- An hour of earned relaxation
- A nice cup of hot tea (this works perfectly in the morning)
- A walk with my dog
- Some naughty food
Those are just a few ideas. It really doesn’t matter what the reward is, as long as it positively affects your brain and is fairly consistent.
Reward yourself after each meditation session and over time you will build a new, incredible habit.
Action: Think about a reward that might work for you. After you meditate, experiment with it. If it proves effective (i.e. you gain some happiness from it), stick with it. If it doesn’t feel right, try another one.
7. Find accountability
“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them. — Dalai Lama
Just because meditation is your habit that you’re trying to adopt doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. In fact, one of the best ways to stick with a new habit is to create some form of accountability.
I did this when I walked 10,000 steps every day for a month. As a full-time engineer with a desk job, it was unbelievably hard for me to hit that mark every day. So what did I do? I called on the readers at my blog for help.
I created a challenge and told them about it. I checked in with them weekly and showed them my stats. Then, I set a consequence for when I failed. Each time I didn’t reach 10,000 steps, I would give a subscriber $20. After I lost my first $100, you can bet I started getting my ass into shape.
You might want to create a challenge for yourself. If not, just tell a friend or family member. Let them know your goal and intentions. Ask them to step in and be your accountability. Most loved ones would be more than willing to help out. Plus, sometimes it inspires them to get into better habits, too.
If you’re too embarrassed to ask a loved one, then give something like Coach.me a try. It’s an app for forming habits where you can hire your own accountability coach.
When all else fails, your accountability will help keep you on track and on your way to a lasting meditation habit.
Action: Find yourself some form of accountability. If reaching out to a friend or family member for help, try using this:
“Hey [insert name here], I’m really trying to get into some better habits. I heard meditation was super good for you, and I want to do it, but need your help. Would you mind holding me accountable?”
8. Keep it going
By now, you basically have all you need to help form a daily meditation habit.
But, there’s still one question that remains: how to keep it going long enough to form the habit?
In order to make your new meditation habit stick — and last forever — you only have one job: “don’t break the chain”.
Of course, I’m referring to a quote by one of the most successful comedians of all time, Jerry Seinfeld.
Jerry believed that the reason his comedy kept improving was because he would write every day. To do this, he kept it super simple. He used a calendar that he would mark up with big red X’s. Each day he wrote, he would put an X on his calendar.
“After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.” – Jerry Seinfeld
The important principle there for forming habits is this: “don’t break the chain”. Your only job to make your meditation habit stick is to show up. Every. Single. Day.
That’s why in the previous steps we made your goal so small. Consistency is far more important than performance when building a new habit. Jerry knew that, and over time, he was able to improve his writing and his career.
Action: Track your meditation habit with a wall calendar, like Jerry, or using your own method. Whatever you do, show up every day and try not to break the chain.
If not now, when?
Meditation offers so many benefits. Who wouldn’t want to start experiencing them today?
With the steps above, you have the tools you need to meditate every single day. Let’s recap.
First: Planning Your New Meditation Habit
- Set a goal and make it small. Just 1–2 minutes per day is perfect for beginners.
- Make meditation a priority.
- Pick your zone. Identify a quiet place for you to begin your practice.
- Design your environment. Rig the game in your favor.
Second: Meditating. Ommm….
- Get out there and meditate. Don’t forget about your goal and starting small.
- Reward yourself. Complete the habit loop and enable your new, good behavior through positive reinforcement.
- Find accountability. Some of the smartest people in the world know their limitations and when to ask for help. Accountability is a habit-forming game changer.
- Don’t break the chain. It worked for Jerry Seinfeld, and it can work for you, too.
What to Do If You Fall Out of Habit?
“All of this is awesome, Jason, but what happens when I miss a day?”
I thought you’d never ask.
Missing one day here and there won’t hurt. Remember, you should always be trying not to break the chain when possible. But, sometimes life happens and you slip up.
If you have to miss one day, don’t beat yourself up over it. Just make sure that the next day you show up and meditate. One missed day is manageable. Two usually means it’s time to throw in the towel until next time.
Use the tools and steps I’ve provided above to help you do whatever it takes to keep your habit going.
If you do miss a couple of days and ultimately fall out of habit, it’s time to reevaluate your plan based on what happened.
What were your biggest struggles?
Did you design your environment?
Did you ask for help?
Maybe try experimenting with a different reward or time of day.
Habits are often a TON of trial and error. Keep at it and eventually, you’ll find something that works for you.