by Michael W. Taft
We all know by now that mindfulness meditation can create positive changes in your life. It works, but you pretty much have to practice it every day to really reap the benefits. Establishing and maintaining that kind of steady, daily practice presents a challenge, even for people with a strong motivation to sit.
Understanding some basic psychological principles, however, can help you to create and maintain the regular practice you desire. A few simple brain hacks can nudge your meditation tendency over the line to a sustainable, life-long practice. Here are five scientifically-proven methods that do just that:
1. Make a Contract with Yourself
There’s this funny thing about the brain. It wants to appear consistent to itself, and really dislikes things that make you look contradictory or hypocritical. This naturally applies socially, but it turns out that you want to appear consistent even to yourself. This is a psychological principle called “consistency bias,” and here’s how to make it work in your favor.
Write up a contract with yourself, explicitly committing to meditate every day, and then sign it. Once you put something in writing and sign it, your brain has a strong desire to appear consistent. You will actually begin to change your beliefs and actions to come into line with this written commitment. So even when you don’t feel like meditating—there’s a concert, or television show, or sleeping late, or whatever you would rather do—somewhere in the back of your mind you will remember that contract, and that can push you over the edge toward sitting down and meditating first.
2. Make a Calendar
You can make your written commitment even stronger if you create a calendar each week, containing specific meditation goals for each day. Post this calendar prominently, in a place where you see it all the time, and put a large X through each day after you sit. Combining this tip with the contract makes both work more effectively.
There are also all kinds of great applications that don’t only serve as a meditation calendar, but that actually remind you to do it. On Windows, Outlook or Lightning can be used to create a meditation calendar, and are integrated with email clients you may already have. If you want a stand-alone Windows program that is also free, Rainlender comes highly recommended. (I haven’t used any of these programs myself). On my Mac, I really like the Todo program from Appigio. Cross-platform, by far the best web-based application is Google Calendar. All of these can send you reminders to motivate you to sit down and meditate.
3. Social Pressure
You’ve made a contract and signed it, and you’ve got a meditation calendar up and running. With these two tools helping you to stay motivated and engaged in your meditation practice, the next step is to publicly state your dedication to meditate. Never underestimate the power of social or peer pressure. It magnifies the effect of consistency bias because especially want to appear consistent to others. When we say something in public, we will make big efforts to do what we say we will.
There are many ways to do this. Post on Facebook and Twitter. Tell your friends and family. Make a commitment in front of your twelve-step group. If you happen to appear on national television, take that opportunity to declare your commitment.
4. Sit with a Group
If you want to get the full benefit of social pressure, join a meditation group. On top of the gain you get from consistency bias, you will also benefit from a major increase in your desire to meditate, due to the normative effects of peer pressure. I always say that 50 percent of who you are is other people, meaning that the beliefs, attitudes, and biases of the people around you gradually become your own. By intentionally surrounding yourself with people who meditate, who believe that meditation is a good thing to do, who talk about the details of practice, and so forth, you are slowly and subtly reprogramming yourself to be a long term meditator.
And, of course, there’s also the benefit of the group’s meditation schedule, which also helps to keep you on track.
5. Make It Hard to Fail
So often the reasons that make it hard to meditate are quite mundane: your cat won’t leave you alone, your neighbor plays loud music, the phone keeps ringing. In day to day meditating, these little things can grow big enough to frustrate even the most dedicated person. It’s important to minimize all such annoyances by intelligently engineering your practice times and places. Sit at the quietest times of day, unplug the phone and the computer, let your partner know that you don’t want to be disturbed, put the cat outside. By reducing the number of reasons to stop sitting, you’ll be increasing your likelihood of success with meditation and joy with life.
And that’s what it’s all about.