By now, I’m guessing many of you have heard of, if not practiced, mindfulness, (also frequently referred to as mindfulness meditation). A good tutorial if you don’t know much about it can be found on Tech’s Wellness page. Just look under the Resources tab/Mental Health and Well-Being, and you’ll find some great videos and exercises to get you started.
While this blog will discuss how to build a regular mindfulness practice, let’s review some of the basics. Mindfulness is defined as a “state of nonjudgmental awareness of what’s happening in the present moment, including the awareness of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and senses.” There are many proven benefits for those who practice it regularly, and that practice doesn’t even have to be long – 10 minutes per day has been shown to be beneficial. And many of the benefits align with what some clients hope to achieve, like anxiety reduction, improved memory and focus, ability to adapt to change better, greater satisfaction with relationships and improved emotional resilience.
Not only are the benefits great, but the practice is relatively simple. During a mindfulness practice many people are familiar with, meditation, you sit in a comfortable chair, eyes softly shut, and attend to the feeling of being in the chair, then to your breath, coming in and going out. The mind wanders, thoughts pop up, but the point is to simply notice them and return to feeling the breath. Repeatedly, attending to your present moment.
Simple, right? Yet, many people tell me they just “can’t” or “it won’t work for me,” and this has been puzzling to me. It was considering how people change habits and start new ones that gave me some insight into the puzzle.
So, if knowledge and intention aren’t enough for change, what can be helpful to begin and sustain a mindfulness habit? I’d like to introduce you to several concepts about habits that I hope will help. The overall concept is called Momentum, and then I’ll describe some related techniques you could apply today.
Momentum is a way of using existing habits to create new ones. Using momentum, people “tack” on a new habit to a healthy one they’re already doing. This is much easier than starting something brand new, as it eliminates “context switching” which often makes it hard to maintain something new, (our habits are automatic and happen without much awareness; when we start something new, it often feels awkward for awhile, as we’re not used to behaving in the new context, and we often won’t repeat the behavior due to these uncomfortable feelings).
A specific example of momentum is with a technique called Habit Bundling. Think of habit bundling as “Current Habit + New Habit = Habit Bundling”. With habit bundling, your current habit becomes an accountability buddy for your new habit, decreasing the amount of thought and effort required to perform a new habit.
So, if your intention is to increase your mindfulness moments per day, you could listen to a mindfulness meditation as you make dinner. Or, when you sit down for a meal, you take 3 deep breaths and sigh it out, paying attention to your breath. Another example of this I do twice a day when brushing my teeth – while attending to the action, I fully engage in the sensory experience, returning to it when my mind wanders into thinking about what I have to do later.
Habit Stacking is also related to momentum. Habit stacking is a way of developing a new habit by stacking the habit you want to develop right before a habit you have. You might think of the current habit as motivation or a reward for your new habit. For example, you might make a bargain with yourself, like agreeing to practice 5 minutes of mindfulness meditation before reading your instagram feed.
Temptation Bundling pairs something you want to do with something you should do, and can be another easy way to add mindfulness moments into your life. For example, if you’re a coffee drinker in the morning, you could add a mindfulness exercise to the experience. I often do this in reverse – doing a mindfulness meditation before getting started with my note-writing, (mindfulness becomes a way of making a transition into a more concentrated activity, and I like doing it more than writing).
Engaging in a few small changes to increase your practice adds up, building your comfort with the practice without disrupting your routine. And there are many apps these days that also help with habit development. Mindfulness apps such as Calm, Headspace and 10% Happier have reminder functions and offer rewards, (in the form of praise), that are vital in starting and maintaining a habit. Starting small, beginning again when you forget, (without negatively assessing yourself – everyone’s been there!), will lead you into the many wonderful benefits of mindfulness.