Level Up Your Mindfulness Practice: Create habits that stick.

Dr. Marina Harris

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Let’s say you suffer from anxiety. You want to focus more. You want to pay more attention to your relationships. You have trouble sleeping. You just want to improve your well-being.

You heard about this new trend called “mindfulness.” You learn it’s all about focus on the present moment. That it’s all about just noticing what is, and letting go of judgments.

You learn that mindfulness will get you closer to the things you want, like feeling less stressed, more connected, and more grateful.

You try mindfulness.

You practice it once or twice, but never again. Maybe you practice for a while, but then just sort of fall off.

Either way, it doesn’t stick.

You know that regular practice is the best way to reach your goals. But it’s just so hard to stick to something. You’re busy. You have a lot of competing priorities.

I get it, I’ve been there.

Up until a few years ago, I was a complete mindfulness non-believer. I was “too busy,” I didn’t think it would help me, and I didn’t always identify with the super “zen” people teaching and preaching mindfulness practice.

But after a week of dedicated practice, I noticed a difference.

I was less anxious. I had more clarity. I slept better. I found it easier to switch from task to task. I could focus more on conversations with my husband. I felt better about myself and my accomplishments.

But I got stuck. Because I believed that just knowing all the benefits of mindfulness would help me actually stick to doing it.

Wrong.

I knew I needed to try something new to make it stick.

I started small. I slowly worked my way back up to a regular, stable routine of mindfulness. But I couldn’t have done it without these habits.

Here is everything I’ve learned throughout my education, my work as a mental health therapist, and practicing personally.

If you want better sleep, less stress, and more connection, but you find it hard to consistently and purposefully practice mindfulness, check out these tips for making mindfulness a regular habit.

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Start small.

Did you ever start a habit overnight? Yeah, me neither.

We can build a sustainable habit by starting small with something that is extremely doable.

Start by practicing mindfulness for just one minute. One minute! You can do anything for one minute.

You also don’t have to start with any complicated mindfulness practices. Start by just noticing your breath.

Tune in to the rise and fall of your belly. Notice the cool air enter your nose and exit your mouth. And when you get distracted, notice that too, and pull your attention back to your breath.

Here is a brief, mindfulness of breath practice you can try.

Practicing a little bit of mindfulness (just one minute!) at regular intervals will set the groundwork for your habit.

Pair it.

Pair mindfulness with something you do every day.

Remember, you don’t need to sit and meditate to be mindful. Mindfulness is all about paying attention to the present moment.

As long as we are paying attention, we are using mindfulness.

You can pair mindfulness with things like brushing your teeth, eating a meal, doing the dishes, or taking your dog for a walk.

When you pair mindfulness with daily activities, it cues your brain to practice.

The more you practice mindfulness with that activity, the more the activity will remind you to be mindful.

Set a space.

Set aside a safe, inviting, and soothing place to practice mindfulness.

Dedicate a space of pillows on your floor with some essential oils and a blanket nearby. Sit on a chair on your front porch. Go stand in your backyard. You can be mindful anywhere!

Setting aside a specific place for mindfulness helps tell your brain that it’s time to be present when you move into that space.

It can represent an essential shift from chaos to tranquility.

Pick an optimal time.

Regularity is key to building a habit. Pick a time that is going to be your regular, dedicated mindfulness practice time.

But also, pick a time that is optimal for you.

So many articles recommend that you practice mindfulness first thing in the morning. In my house, mornings are chaos. I am not a morning person. So mindfulness in the morning is not for me.

Instead, pick a time that is going to work best for you.

Pick a time that matches your biology. If you feel stressed in the early afternoon, regularly set aside 2–5 minutes at 3 pm and take a breath. If you love waking up at 5 am to take a relaxing coffee break, set a 1-minute mindfulness timer. If you want to use mindfulness to unwind after work, take a deep breath after parking your car in the garage after work.

Make your mindfulness practice work for you. Pick a time that gives you the best chance of success.

Find a mindfulness buddy.

Habits are rarely created in a vacuum. We need to set up circumstances in our lives to create those habits. This includes a support system.

Tell a friend about your new goal. Even better, find a friend who will practice mindfulness with you. Maybe you practice with your spouse or kids or parents or siblings. Maybe you set up a mindfulness zoom call with your colleagues to practice together — that’s what I did!

Encourage each other. Help each other start when it’s hard to. Cheer-lead each other after practicing.

This helps foster connection, a shared experience, and moves you closer to your goals.

Find the people who will help you stick to something that makes your life better.

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Avoid the all-or-nothing trap.

When people try to change behaviors, most fall into the all-or-nothing trap.

Let’s say our goal is to go to the gym three days a week. One day, we miss a day. We fall into the all-or-nothing trap and tell ourselves, “Oh well, this week is already ruined so I’ll just start again next week.” We miss those last two workouts because we tell ourselves a story. We have every intention of going back to the gym, but we never do.

Instead, adopt a something-is-better-than-nothing mindset. In this mindset, every little bit counts. In this mindset, we celebrate any small step that gets us closer to our goal.

Practicing mindfulness for 30 seconds is better than postponing it until tomorrow.

Practice a little. You’ll get a lot.

Give yourself credit.

Behavior change is really hard. That’s why I spent seven years in school learning how to do it. Behavior change is really hard.

The mindfulness journey is not linear.

We start, stop, start again. Stick with it for a while, fizzle out, pick it back up again.

That means that we need to give ourselves credit when we practice.

Set up a reward. The reward could be as small as checking mindfulness off your to-do list. It could be kudos from your mindfulness buddy. It could be putting a gold star sticker on your calendar every time you practice mindfulness. Do whatever makes you feel good!

Working to better yourself is a hard job. And as long as you’re doing something toward that goal, you’re doing great. You deserve to celebrate it.

Link mindfulness to your goals — short and long-term.

Humans have a hard-time changing behavior solely because of long-term benefits. That’s why it’s so hard to quit smoking or drinking. We know that these behaviors cause long-term damage, but when the outcome is so far away, it’s really hard to get motivated today.

Link your mindfulness practice to your goals in the short-term.

What does mindfulness give you that you need right now? For me, it’s a pause in the workflow chaos. It’s a deep breath to loosen the knot in my stomach. It’s me completely immersing myself in a conversation with my husband. Mindfulness helps me do these things right now.

But don’t neglect the long-term either.

I want to add writing to my professional repertoire. This means that on top of my full-time job, I am writing articles in my head in the evening after work. I need to be able to quickly shift between thinking about my next article and talking with my spouse. I need mindfulness for that.

It helps me increase the quality of my life right now, and helps me reach that long-term outcome I’ve been dreaming of.

What dream do you have that mindfulness can help you reach right now? If you stick with mindfulness, what will your life look like in five years? In 10 years? How can mindfulness help you grab what you want?

The Takeaway

Just like any habit, a daily mindfulness routine doesn’t develop overnight. It takes small steps that create momentum into bigger steps. It takes a desire to move toward skills that make your life better.

Only you can design your unique mindfulness practice routine. Make it work for you.

Meet yourself where you are. Start small. Reward yourself when it’s hard to keep going. And remember why you’re practicing.

Mindfulness is not about arriving at the destination. It’s about the process of getting there. It’s about moving towards something. And that something can be a more fulfilling, more present life.

Bridge that gap between what you want, and what you have.

And go get it.

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References

  1. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Hachette Books.
  2. Hülsheger, U. R., Alberts, H. J. E. M., Feinholdt, A., & Lang, J. W. B. (2012). Benefits of mindfulness at work: The role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 1–16.

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PhD in Clinical Psychology | Science-backed advice for living your best life | Expert on eating disorders, relationships, and athlete mental health | Former Division I Athlete

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