For the last few years I’ve been trying, but ultimately failing, to integrate daily meditation into my life. Every January 1st…okay fine, every January 2nd (I’m always way too tired to do anything on the first), I start off strong, but a week or two in, I give up. One missed day turns into four, at which point I get discouraged and tell myself I might as well miss a couple more days. Suddenly, it’s two months later and I’ve completely abandoned my New Year’s resolution.
Nowadays, apps such as Breathe and Headspace make it quick and painless to meditate, and the former even lets you ease into it with three minute sessions. So then why can’t I seem to make a habit out of it?
Less is more
One reason we fail to keep New Year’s resolutions is because we’re attempting to do too much at once explains Miami based psychotherapist, Dr. Melissa Schacter (DMST). It’s great to have multiple resolutions, but you’ll have better luck keeping them if you tackle them one at a time. Therefore start by identifying one very specific habit you’d like to introduce into your life.
The next step is becoming well versed in all the ways said habit may benefit you, says Dr. Schacter, because it will help you commit. Afterwards, it’s all about setting realistic and measurable goals.
Therefore, instead of shooting for twenty minutes of meditation per day, I’m more likely to succeed if I start by committing to just five minutes daily for two weeks and then readjusting. In order to make something into a habit, Dr. Schacter says you have to work towards it daily and make it a part of your lifestyle.
Say it out loud
Don’t be shy about your intentions! If you want to drink a eight glasses of water per day, shout it from the rooftops. But seriously, Dr. Schacter suggests telling people you trust so they can support you throughout the process and hold you accountable. Similarly, she says you should avoid those who bring you down and don’t share your goals. If you want to eat healthier, you may want to rethink seeking support from your fast-food addict friend (at least temporarily).
Rewards also go a long way, as any pet owner should know. When we get what we want, our brains release dopamine, i.e, the chemical referred to as the “feel good” neurotransmitter. Indeed, part of why people like to-do lists so much is because the satisfaction of ticking off a small task is shown to cause a spike in dopamine.* As a list-lover myself, I’m officially adding “meditate for five minutes” to mine so I can bask in the dopamine regularly and stay motivated.
Identify bad habits holding you back
It’s also important to understand that a major part of forming a new habit is identifying the bad habits preventing it from happening and how to break them, says Dr. Schacter. In my case, the bad habits I have to break in order to meditate each morning or evening (the easiest times to fit it into my schedule) are to stop checking my phone first thing when I wake up, and watching too much TV before bed, neither of which are especially good for me.
To change a habit, take a break
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, the best time to change a habit is on vacation, because your usual environmental cues are missing. For example, if you’re used to smoking during your afternoon break, a week away from your desk (whether you’re back in an office or working from home these days) may help you ditch that pattern. You may even realize the reason your smoking is out of boredom and that you should look for a healthier pick-me-up. If you can’t take time off soon and can’t seem to accomplish your goals, consider switching your surroundings. For me this could mean something as simple as changing which room I meditate in.
Don’t aim for perfection
Dr. Schacter says part of what stands between me and my meditation practice is a very common mistake: I’m being too hard on myself. A lot of people use making mistakes as a reason to justify falling off the bandwagon, when in reality imperfection is part of the process of adopting a new habit. “Be accountable for your mistakes, but continue to move forwards,” she advises.
Although there have been various studies on the subject, there’s no consensus regarding how long it takes for a new behavior to become automatic. Everyone is different and some habits are easier to form than others explains Dr. Schacter. So don’t dwell on the numbers, and instead focus on the process. Here’s to a more mindful new year.