How to Start a Meditation Practice That Actually Sticks
It’s simpler than you think to develop your own meditation practice
When I first started my business in 1991, a meditation practice was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, it would be more than a decade before I tried it out and discovered how much meditation could benefit my leadership and my personal well-being. Even then, I considered starting a meditation practice but kept putting it off because I felt I was too busy. I researched its benefits, I learned how to get started, but it took years for me to finally commit to a daily practice.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone! Like you, I understood that mindfulness meditation could increase my ability to focus, help me regulate my emotions, and even improve my health. But as the owner and president of a growing company, I told myself I was too busy to carve time out of my day to do nothing. Finally, I reached a breaking point and decided to give meditation a try. Today, I’m twelve years into a daily meditation practice and even take biannual silent retreats to deepen my practice.
Mindfulness meditation helps me manage my stress and anxiety, be a more productive leader, and a better person to everyone in my life. Even if you’ve tried to start a meditation practice before and it didn’t stick, I hope you’ll accept my challenge to give it another try. Like many things in life, it takes equal parts commitment and the right technique to make meditation a habit. Here are four ways to start a meditation practice that actually sticks.
1. Set an Attainable Goal
What do you want your practice to look like 6 months from now? What about a year from now? Let’s say it’s to meditate at least 20 minutes per day. Set the goal and do it for at least 21 days, laying the groundwork for a new habit to form. Even if that means starting with 5 minutes a day and building up, the most important thing is to stick with it. You don’t want your practice to become a burden, so start as small as necessary in order to be successful — even one mindful breath a day encourages you to do something simple that isn’t time consuming, and ultimately is helpful in cultivating what will become a strong practice in the future.
Chade-Meng Tan, an engineer at Google who helped start Google’s Search Inside Yourself program, recommends finding a buddy and committing to a 15-minute conversation every week to discuss how you are doing with your practice and what has arisen in your life that relates to your practice. There are also many meditation apps on the market that can help guide your practice — some of my favorites are Meditation Studio, Insight Timer, Headspace, and 10% Happier.
2. Create a Routine
Set a consistent time and place for your meditation practice each day and stick to it. The key to creating a lasting habit is tying your meditation practice to a familiar schedule and environment. For a true habit, no willpower is needed — once it’s a habit, it doesn’t take any extra effort. Research has proven that for habit formation to be effective, it requires repetition and contextual cues, such as the same time of day and the same environment.
As you get started with your practice, be open, honest, and vulnerable. Talk to important people in your life, such as your significant other, spouse, kids, roommates, or coworkers, about your goal. Share why you’re starting your practice (it will benefit them as much as you!) and let them know that you’ll be sitting silently somewhere in your home or office for a set duration of time each day. Having the support of those around you helps keep you accountable and comfortable.
3. Perfect Your Technique
One of the most common questions I get asked is, “How do I meditate?” It’s simple, but it’s hard! As you build your practice, decide how you’d like to meditate — your position, your location, and technique –and learn what to expect. I prefer to sit lotus-style (legs crossed) on a cushion, but the most important thing is to find a pose that is comfortable to you. This could be sitting upright in a chair, kneeling on a bench, or lying down. When you find a comfortable position, support yourself as much as you can and maintain awareness of your posture. Not too rigid, not too soft. The better your posture, the more comfortable you will be, and the more comfortable you are, the longer you will be able to sit without discomfort being a distraction.
The basic idea of mindfulness meditation is as simple as taking the time to intentionally do nothing. Mindfulness meditation builds awareness of the present moment by focusing the attention on the breath. Close your eyes or turn your gaze downward, shift your attention lightly to the breath, notice its natural pattern, and follow it through your nose and down your midsection. Repeat this last step for the duration of your practice. Inevitably, sitting quietly prompts all sorts of thoughts. This does not mean you’ve failed at meditating! Simply follow the breath until you realize you are thinking. Breathe in, breathe out, and let go of the thought. Then simply begin again.
4. Take a Silent Retreat
I attended my first 7-day silent retreat in November 2014. I had no expectations going into the retreat, but I came out of the experience with new depths of clarity and the ability to be more present. No matter how experienced you are in meditation, a silent retreat gives you the foundation to deeply understand your practice and how it fits into your life. The structure of a silent retreat allows for your mind to deepen in a way that is difficult to attain elsewhere, and the lessons you learn on an extended meditation retreat are invaluable.
Give these four steps a try and start your own meditation practice. I’d love to hear from you as you build your practice — drop me a note with your challenges, successes, and any questions you may have. If you’re interested in learning more about meditation, check out the donothing™ book and silent leadership retreat.