All the benefits—and joy—of a regular meditation practice can be yours by using the science of behavior change
For years I tried to make myself meditate every day — and I always failed miserably.
Despite knowing about all the wondrous benefits of meditation, I was always too busy, too tired, or I simply didn’t know where to start. And when I did start, I quickly got bored and unmotivated; I hated all the guided meditations I tried, and I grew impatient from sitting in silence when I could be doing something more productive.
But then it all changed.
I recently managed to harness my willpower, and for the past six months I managed to meditate for an average of forty-five minutes every day (rarely less, often more, with a total of four days skipped).
And I can’t even begin to tell you how this habit changed my life.
I no longer have anxiety attacks. I procrastinate 95% less. My life has more meaning. I am a better friend, lover, daughter, and person.
Most of all, I am incomparably happier.
In this article, I will share with you the most impactful steps I took to steadily and sustainably build a meditation habit that I believe will last me a lifetime.
In 2017 I attended my first Vipassana meditation retreat — ten days spent in silence practicing a body scan based meditation technique also known as “insight meditation”.
I had no previous meditation experience, so the retreat had a very big impact on me. Returning home, I felt very motivated to do the daily two-hour-practice at home that the teachers recommended—at least for a few days.
However, it wasn’t long before I lost the excitement and dropped the practice.
At the time, I blamed my lack of willpower for this, but in hindsight, I can see my expectations were unrealistic. There was no way I could make my 21st-century, social-media-addicted monkey-mind sit down for two full hours every day relying solely on the inspiration triggered by a recent event, without any pre-retreat meditation experience.
When you come back from a life-changing retreat or a trip to Thailand, or even after watching a super inspiring documentary, long meditation sessions sound like the coolest, easiest, most exciting thing in the world. But then the hype ends, real life kicks in, and suddenly those two hours of daily meditation don’t seem so exciting or even feasible anymore.
This is why one of the best ways to build a meaningful meditation practice is to start small.
According to B.J. Fogg, a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University who has studied behavior change for more than 20 years, constantly failing to do something because we don’t enjoy it is more detrimental to our motivation than doing nothing at all, and therefore he recommends starting with “tiny habits” to help build the confidence that will lead us to success.
In other words, it’s better to meditate for five minutes than aim for one hour, get discouraged, and then not meditate at all. Don’t feel bad for not being able to meditate for long. Instead, choose an amount of time you can commit to, and then do it daily. When you’re starting to build a meditation routine, it’s more important to do it every day than finishing long sits.
Even meditating for five minutes has been proven to have benefits. But if you want deeper transformation, look at those five minutes as the encouraging first step on a big staircase of self-discovery and spiritual development. Once the habit of five minutes is non-negotiable and feels ingrained into your life, you will feel more confident, and then you can think about gradually increasing the time of your practice.
Very early on in my meditation journey, I learned that the best time of the day to practice is in the morning. Whenever I skipped it and promised myself to do it later in the day, it never happened.
Routine and stability proved to be my best ally in my early days of building the habit. For example, meditating in the same room every day proved to be effective, whereas meditating while traveling or after intense emotional encounters with other people proved to be disruptive.
The thing is: there will always be distractions and ups and downs in your life, so there’s no point trying to avoid them. You will get sick. You will get tired. Emergencies will happen, and there will be days when you could kill not to have to meditate.
The key is not to avoid the natural flow of life, but to design your meditation practice around it.
How can you do that?
For me, I found that the best way is to create as much stability as possible in my practice and routine, and then remain open and flexible to adapt my lifestyle and environment to remove any possible obstacles that might keep me from practicing.
An example: I don’t have a regular wake-up time, so instead of having a fixed time for meditation, I created a slot in my morning routine between yoga and breakfast.
Sequencing your meditation habit after another established habit (in this case, yoga) can also serve as a good trigger to help reinforce your routine.
Sometimes, however, my routine is interrupted. I travel often, so I always try to plan my meditation in advance of a big trip—I know I will most likely be tired and skip it if I don’t have a clear plan.
Finding a time slot in your schedule (after waking up, before work, during lunch break, before bed) helps a lot, but you also need to be flexible and ready to adapt. Otherwise, unexpected events will easily become excuses to skip your practice.
“A lot of people think we are creatures of habit, but we’re not. We are creatures of environment.” — Roger Hamilton
Science has shown that our environment—the place where we live, our routines, the people we hang out with—has more impact on our behavior than factors such as willpower and motivation. (In an extreme example, people became potential organ donors at a much higher rate when this was simply switched to be the default choice on the relevant forms.)
If you want to make meditation into a habit, make sure there is space in your life for it, and create an environment that will encourage it.
Even after months of keeping a regular daily meditation practice, my motivation still wanes on occasion. When it does, I know what to do: I need to get back in touch with the reasons why I wanted to start this practice in the first place.
Having a system and a favorable environment is key to developing a consistent meditation practice. However, John Yates Ph.D., neuroscientist and world-renowned Buddhist meditation teacher, explains that if we don’t stay connected to the purpose of our practice, we will get frustrated and bored and likely quit it our practice regardless.
So let me ask you a question:
Why do you want to start meditating?
Maybe it’s to relieve your stress and anxiety. Maybe it’s to gain more clarity. Maybe you want to be healthier, calmer, kinder, more focused — or perhaps you feel a spiritual call to unravel the mysteries of life, death, and consciousness.
Whatever is your reason to meditate, make sure you know it, and make sure you feel it on a regular basis.
Yates recommends reviewing this strong felt purpose at the beginning of every meditation session. Before you begin meditating, repeat it in your head and notice how it makes you feel.
It’s okay if it’s different every day, and it’s okay if, at first, it sounds superficial or presumptuous (I will not deny that very often I chose “achieve enlightenment”) — what matters is that it provokes a feeling of excitement and commitment.
But this is not enough.
Eventually, even your daily “purpose reviews” will start creating habituation — unless you supplement them with other stronger, different, and more sporadic ways to rekindle your inspiration and motivation. Here are some examples of ways to do that:
- Attend occasional meditation retreats.
- Exchange insights and experiences with other meditators.
- Read an insightful meditation book.
- Watch a documentary about an inspiring spiritual teacher.
- Attend group meditation sessions or classes near you.
Think about your meditation practice as a romantic relationship with your life partner: you can’t just expect that the flame will magically stay alive — you have to work on the relationship with love, appreciation, and the cultivation of a common purpose.
Remember: random boosts of motivation are useless without a favorable environment and an effective system, but no system will work if you don’t feel the purpose of what you are doing. Systems bring you consistency; a strong “why” gives you strong certainty and joy — and together they can radically change your behavior.
If I had to guess how many times I started and quit meditation, I would confidently guess more than twenty. More often than not, the reason was simply that I got lost.
For a long time I thought “how hard can this really be?”, so I tried to teach myself random techniques I heard or read about somewhere. I tried focusing on my breath; I tried observing my thoughts; I tried visualizing, relaxing, and singing, but after a while, I always ended up asking myself in frustration:
“Am I doing something wrong?”
“What should I do next?”
Until one day a friend told me about a book that completely revolutionized my practice.
The book is called The Mind Illuminated. It was written by John Yates, aka Culadasa (yes, I’ve mentioned him above) and it’s a ten-step in-depth process that addresses specific obstacles and sets clear milestones towards spiritual awakening.
As soon as I started following this process, I wondered: why the hell did I waste all this time trying to learn meditation on my own, getting frustrated and disappointed, when I could so easily learn from the teachings of those who have been exploring and perfecting this discipline for centuries?
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that in order to meditate successfully you need to buy the book I mentioned. What I’m saying is, just like with learning any skill, your progress in meditation will be incomparably faster if you follow proven methodologies by experts, which will keep you motivated.
Also, meditation can be quite an abstract discipline at times, so intellectually understanding what you’re doing and where you’re going helps keep your mind engaged and interested.
The more detailed and tangible the exercises, the better. For example, Yates dissects the act of breathing into dozens of small processes and exercises, which makes the sessions seem feasible and appealing.
There are plenty of meditation books, courses, lessons, and teachers out there. Choose the one that speaks to your heart, and allow its wisdom to guide your practice and keep you progress-focused.
I have a friend that swears by the power of writing a detailed meditation journal after each of her meditation sessions.
To be honest, adding another fifteen minutes of writing and reflecting after each session sounds like a lot of work to me. However, I like the idea of using a pen and paper to keep me accountable, so I started tracking my sessions instead.
Filling in a daily square in my journal with the duration and quality of my meditation sessions somehow makes them seem more real (they no longer exist only in my head), and keeps me accountable (I hate breaking long habit streaks!).
Or, if you prefer something simpler and less time consuming, you might want to just track whether you meditated or not, for how long, and any additional details such as type of meditation (more on that in the next section) or the quality of the session.
Bonus tip: if you skip a day, don’t skip it twice — that’s usually where habits break.
If you are into free, reflective writing, you can, like my friend, start a meditation journal and write down the main takeaways, thoughts, obstacles or achievements after each session.
There is something very grounding and appealing about transposing habits to paper; it also makes meditation more fun, and it helps you know where you stand on the path you chose.
After a few months of following the steps in The Mind Illuminated, I started feeling like I had hit a plateau. Was it not working for me anymore?
It turned out that all I needed was a change of perspective.
I realized that I had become obsessed with taming my focus and attention, and I needed to open up.
So I went back to my Vipassana practice, and started learning Mettā (also known as “loving-kindness”) meditation, and as soon as I including those in my routine, my whole practice became radically easier and more joyful.
Even if you regularly renew your motivation and have effective systems in place, you’re still human. This means that your mood, your needs, and your life experiences will vary. Your meditation is both a mirror of and a solution to the changes in your life, so it’s important to observe these shifts and choose the practice that best adapts to them.
Here are a few examples of some popular meditation techniques, and some reasons that usually lead people to practice them:
Loving-kindness has been proven to increase love, joy, contentment, gratitude, pride, hope, interest, amusement, and awe.
Research shows that it can improve focus and memory, lessen impulsive emotional reactions, improve relationship satisfaction, and be more positive.
Due to being an active form of meditation, it makes it easy to get grounded and focus if your mind is restless by engaging your body. It’s been proven to improve memory and depressive symptoms, as well as reduce stress.
Body Scan or Progressive Relaxation
Helps develop calm and relaxation, and it’s been proven to help with chronic pain.
Zen Meditation, or Zazen
Slows down brainwaves and has the potential to trigger changes in consciousness, being commonly associated with feelings of clarity and inner peace.
Don’t worry too much about what kind of meditation you start with in the beginning — you’ll never know what’s best for you until you try it. And feel encouraged to try other forms of meditation to see what works best for you at any given time.
Here’s a way to apply what we’ve just discussed:
- When starting out, choose one type of meditation and start practicing every day; and
- Whenever you feel stuck, or you feel like you need a change, or that you need to address different needs and problems, allow yourself to explore and investigate new techniques and disciplines, and mix it up.
This will make sure that your practice stays relevant and in alignment with your goals and lifestyle. Remember: know your “why” — and then adapt your practice to fulfill it.
If you ever tried to meditate even for a few minutes, you know how frustrating (or even enraging) it can be to try to tame a wild, restless mind.
If you start associating meditation with effort, disappointment, boredom, and impatience, you will feel more and more resistance to attend your regular sessions.
The good news is, I’ve found one easy remedy to stop disliking meditation, and it’s very simple: you just have to cultivate joy.
Now, how does one cultivate joy? There is not really any trick to it: you just look for it, and you feel it.
For example, when you’re sitting on your meditation cushion, begin your practice by looking for pleasant feelings in the present moment, such as the quietude of the room or the warmth of your blanket.
Something else I do to adopt a positive meditation-mindset is to frequently express gratitude for the benefits that this practice brings to my life: feeling calmer, more connected, more equanimous, more loving.
When we associate habits with pleasant feelings, they become much easier to maintain. When it comes to meditation, the more you enjoy your practice, the easier it becomes to stick to it.
Remember: meditation is a privilege — it’s something you choose and get to do, and that will very likely change your life for the better. What’s there not to enjoy about that?
You don’t have to be a Buddha, or even an incredibly self-disciplined person in order to start—and maintain—a daily meditation habit.
All you need to do is create the right mechanisms and use the best tools at your disposal.
I can guarantee it will change your life. You might not see it at first, but if you stick with it, there is no other tool that can bring bigger transformation — for your mental health, your productivity, your relationships, your purpose in life, and your contribution to the world.
Give it a try. Take it easy, enjoy the ride, and the results are bound to happen.