The benefits of meditation don’t come instantaneously—here’s how to make it a long-term habit and see real results
“When we do not expect anything, we can be ourselves.”
— Shunryu Suzuki
Making meditation a daily habit was one of my goals for 2014. But a few months in, I still hadn’t managed to do it for more than two days in a row.
I was sitting in the middle of my room, eyes closed, trying to meditate. But my mind was racing, and my head hurt. I hated the silence. I tried this over and over again, but it never worked. I felt like a failure. In June 2014, I stopped forcing myself and ditched the goal altogether.
It wasn’t until I saw a TED talk by Matthieu Ricard about a year later that I considered a second attempt. Ricard earned a Ph.D. in molecular genetics but abandoned his scientific career and became a Buddhist monk and an interpreter for the Dalai Lama.
If you can spare 20 minutes, I recommend watching his talk on the habits of happiness. But if you can’t, here’s the quintessence:
“Well-being is not just a mere pleasurable sensation. It is a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment. […] The experience that translates everything is within the mind. […] Now, it takes time, because it took time for all those faults in our mind, the tendencies, to build up, so it will take time to unfold them as well. But that’s the only way to go. Mind transformation — that is the very meaning of meditation. It means familiarization with a new way of being, new way of perceiving things, which is more in adequation with reality with interdependence, with the stream and continuous transformation which our being and our consciousness is. [..] It’s more to say that mind training matters. That this is not just a luxury. This is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul. This is something that’s going to determine the quality of every instant of our lives. We are ready to spend 15 years achieving education. We love to do jogging, fitness. We do all kinds of things to remain beautiful. Yet, we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most — the way our mind functions — which, again, is the ultimate thing that determines the quality of our experience.”
Ricard’s words touched me so much I gave meditation a second try. But like before, I struggled. A lot. I didn’t find the time, didn’t enjoy it, and couldn’t see the benefits the monk was talking about.
But this time, I didn’t quit. Ultimately I figured a practice that works for me. This article can help you find yours.
During the past six years, I meditated almost every day. My headspace app logs 15,500 minutes, and that doesn’t include the time I’ve meditated without using the app. I also once completed a ten-day silent meditation course where we meditated for ten hours every day.
Meditation has changed many aspects of my life, such as:
- Relationships. Meditating gave me more mental space, and I’m more present with the people around me. I feel more gratitude and empathy. I became a better partner, daughter, and friend.
- Self-talk. I can let go faster of destructive thoughts and judgment. These thoughts still come, but I don’t get carried away by the train of thought. I can escape negative loops and choose most of my thoughts.
- Mind-body connection. I can better read my body signals and have the mental space to follow them. I can differentiate whether it’s my ego talking or my body. For example, I can differentiate when it’s time to take a break vs. my mind wanting to quit.
- Work. I can work for longer stretches of uninterrupted focus. I don’t procrastinate anymore. When I don’t want to do a specific task, I likely find the reason and act on it. I am also less reactive, which leads to better decisions.
- Contentment. Meditation helped me let go of the things I can’t control. I’m less stressed because I understand stress is the difference between reality and how I want reality to be.
But there’s more than my personal account. A meta-analysis with more than 1,200 adults found meditation can decrease anxiety. Another study from the University of North Carolina showed individuals who completed a meditation exercise had fewer negative thoughts when seeing negative images than the control group.
But starting and sticking with a daily meditation habit is easier said than done. My impression is similar to Naval Ravikant: “Everyone says they do it, but nobody actually does. The real set of people who meditate on a regular basis, I’ve found, are pretty rare.”
So how can you build a meditation habit you stick with? This article will show you six mind shifts that helped me make it a habit for life. This is the article I wish I had read before trying.
What you get are the key insights from my long-term practice and the things I learned from books on meditation by Eckhart Tolle, Tara Brach, Thích Nhất Hạnh, Sadhguru, and Deepak Chopra as well as Jon Kabat-Zinn’s masterclass.
1. Transform Your Phone From Enemy to Ally
Whenever my phone isn’t on flight mode, I’m doomed to fail. Willpower doesn’t help. Red notification badges, infinite scrolling, and tiny dopamine shots make me check my phone impulsively.
Whenever I woke up and used my phone, I’d always end up in my emails. To-dos plopped into my head, and I’d grow too impatient to meditate. These mornings ultimately ended in self-judgment.
Environments shape our behavior. By checking our phones first thing in the morning, we condition our minds for self-interruption. Notifications and messages make thoughts bounce around like a ping-pong ball.
Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, a psychiatrist, says: “Immediately turning to your phone when you wake up can start your day off in a way that is more likely to increase stress and leave you feeling overwhelmed.”
Once you’re in the monkey mind zone, it’s tough to zone out into the zen mode. A study from Irvine University found it takes 20 minutes to refocus after distractions. That’s why meditation and impulsive social media checks don’t go well together.
Leaving your phone switched off will feel hard at first because it’s easier to indulge in the comforting noise and distraction. Your ego will fight back, whispering you should know what’s going on early in the day.
“The vast majority of push notifications are just distractions that pull us out of the moment,” Justin Rosenstein, the co-creator of the like button, said in an interview with Vice. “They get us hooked on pulling our phones out and getting lost in a quick hit of information that could wait for later, or doesn’t matter at all.”
What to do:
Put your phone on flight mode before you go to sleep. If you have an old device (I use my old phone), install nothing but your meditation facilitator (YouTube, a timer, or a meditation app). Alternatively, you can download whatever you need to meditate on your current device to have it available offline.
Don’t let your device get in your way. By keeping your phone on flight mode until you’ve finished your meditation, you’ll have the inner freedom and mental space to sit in silence.
2. Meditate First Thing in the Morning
In my first and second attempts, I learned that if I don’t meditate first thing in the morning, I won’t meditate all day.
Even with the clear intention to meditate during the day, skipping the practice is easy. Meditating never feels urgent. Any timebound to-do (even doing the laundry, in my case) can seem more important. When your mind is on full-speed working mode, pausing becomes harder and harder.
The earlier you meditate, the fewer the excuses to skip it. With your phone on flight mode, almost nothing can distract you. Over the years, I’ve met a few people who meditate every day, and all of them meditated in the morning.
What to do:
Think about the exact steps you will make tomorrow morning before you sit down to meditate. For me, it’s getting up, opening the window, oil-pulling, brushing my teeth, drinking a big glass of water, a full-body stretch, and then sitting down on my meditation pillow no matter what.
For you, the exact steps might look different, and that’s OK. Just make sure you know when you’ll sit down to train your mind.
3. Start With 3 Minutes a Day
When I started meditating, I set a timer for 20 minutes and forced myself to look at a candle. I tried to concentrate so hard, my head hurt.
If I had to name a single reason for quitting in my first attempt, it’d be trying too hard. Every session drained my energy and made me feel unwell, so I avoided meditating altogether.
No runner newbie pushes themselves through a 30-minute sprint. My goal of meditating for 20 minutes was unrealistic. I failed because of the goal rather than my willpower.
What to do:
When you start, 3 minutes can feel like a long time. Don’t push for more if you don’t feel like it. Take your time to extend the time to 5, 10, 15, or even 20 minutes of silence.
Even though I’ve meditated over 2,000 times, 15 minutes can still feel prolonged. Start small. Consistent baby steps are better than a single big leap.
Use a facilitator to get started. Meditation apps like Calm, Headspace, Waking Up, or Insight Timer can support you in building a robust habit. You can also start with guided meditations on YouTube such as this one, or this one.
4. You Don’t Need to Like the Practice
I don’t meditate for the sake of meditation or to become a better meditator. I meditate to enjoy my life and all the moments in full presence. I think of meditation similar to this quote by Abraham Lincoln:
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”
Did he like sharpening the ax? Probably not. It’s a tiring activity that doesn’t really reward you while doing it. But when it comes to chopping the tree, you’ll be grateful you did it.
In the first two years, I almost always wanted the silence to be over. I thought about all the stuff I had to do instead of wasting my time. I remembered stupid things I said to someone some time ago. I felt a lot of impatience and regret.
But when the time was over, I often felt better than before. In the first years, meditating was a painful way to release pressure.
What to do:
Don’t expect to enjoy sitting down and meditating. Sharpening your mind can feel hard. We’re used to noise and a constant stream of input that sitting in silence can feel very hard.
Meditating is not about how you feel while doing it. It’s about the changes you feel during the rest of your day.
5. Thoughts Will Help You Practice
For a long time, I believed freedom of thought was the ultimate goal of meditation. Absolute inner silence. Zen.
I talked myself down every time thoughts crossed my mind. I felt like something was wrong with me. I thought my mind wasn’t made for meditation.
I was wrong.
The goal of meditation isn’t to get rid of thoughts. A wandering mind is human. In fact, you need your thoughts to meditate.
Without thoughts, you wouldn’t have any object of practice. They’re the weights in your mental gym. Your job is to return your attention away from them and back to your breath (or any other point of focus like a candle, a mantra, or a body part).
When I meditate, I follow my breath — inhales and exhales. Sometimes my mind will wander to thoughts or feelings. And when it does, I acknowledge them and come back to my breath.
This is the core of meditation. Catching yourself while being distracted. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at noticing when you’re unfocused.
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
— Mark Twain
What to do:
Think of thoughts as mental push-ups. The more thoughts you have, the more opportunities for exercise. Meditation helps you notice whatever is going on, become aware of it, label it, and then deal with it.
6. Practice for 3 Months Before You Look for Benefits
Do you go running three times and expect to be able to run a marathon? Nope. I didn’t get to experience any of the benefits five, ten, twenty, even thirty sessions in.
If you notice the upsides of meditation early, then congratulations! I’m happy for you. But if you don’t see any results, don’t quit.
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert shared a lesson from her favorite meditation teacher Pema Chödrön. According to Chödrön, the biggest problem with people’s meditation practice is they quit just when things are starting to get interesting.
Progress is slow and steady. Your mental muscles will grow day by day, but the results are invisible for quite some time.
What to do:
Be patient with your progress. Don’t quit because you don’t notice a change a few weeks in.
Whenever you feel like quitting, read inspiring meditation stories like the one of Yuval Noah Harari. In an interview with Tim Ferriss, he said without meditation, he wouldn’t have written his books.
“It’s not an escape from reality. It’s getting in touch with reality at least for two hours a day. I actually observed reality as it is, while for the other 22 hours I get overwhelmed by emails and tweets and funny cat videos. Without the focus and clarity provided by this practice, I could not have written Sapiens and Homo Deus.”
Meditation is a highly effective tool to train your mind. A regular practice can help you let go of fear and anxiety, focus on the present moment, and find inner calm. Based on my experience, I’m convinced daily meditation is the entryway to a more fulfilled and joyful life.
When building a practice, it’s important to not be too hard on ourselves. Skipping meditation once in a while doesn’t matter. What matters is consistency. You’ll only return to your practice if you don’t judge or push yourself too hard.
Most importantly, it’s your practice. Your ritual can look different from mine or the guru’s recommendations. But once you find a habit that works for you, stick to it. If you do, you’ll feel the benefits within various areas of your life.