The biggest obstacles to cultivating a consistent mindfulness habit and how to overcome them.
Everyone wants to do mindfulness these days. And for good reason. The benefits seem virtually endless, covering everything from lower stress and blood pressure to increased concentration and life satisfaction.
And while many people set the intention of cultivating a mindfulness practice, very few of us, it seems, manage to stick with it. Like so many of our New Year’s resolutions, we do it for a week or two only to see it fall by the wayside. But, like exercise, learning a new instrument, or quitting smoking, the benefits of a mindfulness practice really only kick in when you do it consistently.
Sticking With Mindfulness
Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m by no means an expert at mindfulness meditation. But I am a psychologist. And as a psychologist, I am pretty good at helping people figure out why they can’t seem to do the things they want to do, weather it’s worry less, sleep more, communicate clearly, or lose a few pounds, I spend most of my days coaching people through the sometimes subtle and hard-to-see obstacle that get in the way of achieving their goals.
And one of those goals that people frequently ask for my help with is establishing and maintaining a mindfulness practice. So, over the years I’ve developed a pretty good sense for the types of things that tend to make hard to stick with mindfulness and a few tips for working through them.
In this guide, I’ll walk though a few of most common mistakes and difficulties I see people go through when it comes to maintaining a mindfulness practice. And along the way, offer a few of the best practices for how to overcome them and build a mindfulness practice that will really last.
Tip #1: Start Small but Grow Quickly
A common stumbling block for people attempting to create a consistent mindfulness practice is confusion about the length of time their sessions should last.
There are two timing problems I see people make when they’re starting a mindfulness practice:
- Starting too big. Many people read a book or hear someone interviewed on a podcast talking about their 30 minute mindfulness practice that they do every morning at 5:00am. As a result, they think their practice has to be very long right off the bat, which often leads to frustration and giving up.
- Staying small too long. The other piece of advice that people hear about starting a mindfulness practice is that they should start small, maybe doing just a few minutes per day. While this is generally good advice, there’s an important caveat: While starting small is helpful, staying small for too long can actually hurt your chances of maintaining a mindfulness practice because you don’t get the unique benefits of longer sessions.
In order to avoid both of these mindfulness pitfalls, I recommend that people start with very brief durations for their mindfulness sessions (2 to 5 minutes), but pretty quickly work towards significantly longer sessions (15 to 20 minutes).
The reason is that while the biggest obstacle to getting started with mindfulness is frustration—which can often come from trying to do too much too early—the biggest obstacle to maintaining a mindfulness practice is a lack of positive feedback, which tends to come in much bigger doses in longer sessions.
The analogy that I relate to is running. Growing up a hated having to run laps in PE. Doing a mile once a week seemed like pure torture. It wasn’t until after college, when I found myself in a conversation about running with a family friend who was a professional triathlete, that my attitude toward runnings tarted to shift.
I was explaining to her how awful I felt whenever I had to run, and how I couldn’t understand how anyone could stand it for the kinds of distances she ran. Her casual remarked stunned me, “Well yeah, no one feels good running the first couple miles!”
She went on: “Try this, commit to running 3 miles 3 times this week. Then, the next week, go for a 5 or 6 mile run and see how you feel.” I tentatively took her up on the challenge, and to my complete surprise, despite 20+ years of hating to run, somewhere around mile 4 of that longer run I found myself actually enjoying running!
The point of story is that in mindfulness, just like a lot of other endeavors, the real reward doesn’t kick in until you’ve stretched yourself beyond the basics.
Tip #2: Pain is the Point
One major reason we give up on a regular mindfulness practice is frustration that we’re not doing it right or not making progress because we have a hard time staying focused.
To maintain a lasting and effective mindfulness practice, it’s critical to understand that the struggle to stay focused and return to focus when distracted is the whole point! Mindfulness as an exercise would be useless if you never got distracted or never struggled to remain focused. In fact it’s good to get distracted because that’s an opportunity to practice returning to focus, which means growth.
Here’s an analogy: Suppose you started going to the gym with the goal of getting stronger. What would you think if you picked up some weights and started lifting them, only to realize that it was completely easy and effortless? You wouldn’t be building any muscle and you’d be wasting your time! When you lift a weight that’s actually heavy, the fact that it hurts a little and is uncomfortable means that your muscles are being strained, tearing a little, and having to rebuild stronger than they were before.
When you sit down to your mindfulness practice but find yourself frustrated because your mind is wandering over some other topic and that you have to return it to your breath, that frustration and struggle to return to focus is the very thing that is strengthening your mindfulness muscle!
Getting distracted doesn’t mean you failed or aren’t doing it correctly; quite the opposite, it means you’re getting lots of practice, which is a good thing. So when you finish up a mindfulness session that was more distracting than usual, don’t interpret this as a failure or disappointment. Think of it as a particularly difficult training session, where the difficulty means growth.
Tip #3: Experiment, Experiment, Experiment!
There’s no single right way to do mindfulness. And certainly not one way that works for everyone. A critical mistake I see folks make in the beginning stages of establishing a mindfulness practice is that they unthinkingly use and stick with whatever template or approach to mindfulness they learned about initially. Consequently, many people get frustrated and quit too early because they mistakenly assume the problem is within them (I’m just not a patient enough person,) rather than acknowledging that it could be in the details of the practice itself.
A common example of this is people insisting on doing their mindfulness practice first thing in the morning because that’s when Tony Robbins, or Tim Ferris, Or Jon Kabat-Zinn, or some other mindfulness expert does it. If you’re a night owl trying to establish a mindfulness practice at 5:00am, you may be setting yourself up for unnecessary frustration or even failure. There’s no intrinsic reason why mindfulness in the morning is any better than mindfulness at midnight.
While it’s probably a good idea to start with someone else’s recommendation for the particular logistics and details of a mindfulness practice, it’s important to pretty quickly start to experiment with this details and find something that works for you.
Here are some details of a mindfulness practice that you might want to consider experimenting with early on:
- Time of Day. All other things being equal, establishing any new habit or routine is probably better done earlier rather than later when it’s easier for other things to pop up and get in the way. That being said, if lunch time works for you, great. Or maybe you shut your office door 15 minutes before you leave to go home and do it then.
- Location. A calm, quiet space is nice especially when you’re first starting off, but as we discussed in Tip #2, just because there are some distractions in a specific location doesn’t mean you can’t do mindfulness there. Everything from park benches to empty conference rooms should be fair game to at least experiment with.
- Postures. You don’t have to do the classic lotus pose for it to be real mindfulness. In general, an upright posture is good, but standing is just as acceptable as sitting if it works for you. I would just caution you against doing your mindfulness lying down since it can be easy to end up drifting off into sleep.
- Sensory Modalities. In most forms of mindfulness meditation you’re task is to focus your attention on some physical sensation—the breath is by far the most common—and return to that when you get distracted. While interoceptive (body sensations) and visual (imagining a candle flame) modalities are the most common, there’s no reason you couldn’t use sound, touch, or even smell as an anchor for your attention. Just be sure to pick one from the outset of your session and stick with it.
One final thought on experimentation: once you’ve done some initial experimenting, it’s probably good to stick with a fairly regular routine for a while. Don’t fall into the trap of constantly tinkering with your routine.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I use an app or recording like Headspace?
I recommend not using any sort of app or guided audio at first actually. I think it’s important to get used to the struggle early, and I think guided meditations are too much of a crutch at the beginning. Once you establish a good routine, though, of course feel free to experiment with them.
What about a white noise machine, music, or some other ambient background noise?
Again, I’d recommend not at first. 95% of the time when people ask about these things what they’re really asking for is a crutch, something to make the experience less uncomfortable. But remember, the pain is the point!
Should I do more than one session per day?
If you want, there’s nothing wrong with doing it more than once per day. But don’t burn yourself out too early too fast. Quality over quantity is important, especially when you’re first starting out.
What about mindfulness groups or classes?
I think classes or groups are often a good idea because of the social support and accountability factor. That being said, when you choose a class, make sure it’s primarily experiential not didactic. Someone talking at you about mindfulness is not going to move you much closer to developing your own practice.
What are some good books about mindfulness?
The mindfulness answer to this questions is, forget about books and just start doing it. Still, here are handful of books and resources that I’ve found helpful:
- Jonn Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living was arguably the original text in the most recent wave of mindfulness, and pretty good when it comes to technical aspects of mindfulness meditation. His smaller book of meditations on mindfulness, Wherever You go, There You Are, is also good for internalizing more of the ethos or spirit of mindfulness more generally.
- Lodro Rinzler’s Sit Like A Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation is a short and sweet guide to getting up and started with mindfulness.
- Finally, Leo Baubauta’s blog Zen Habits is an excellent resource for all thing mindfulness.