It’s not easy to achieve a state of zen on a bumpy Megabus on the highway in Northern New Jersey. But it doesn’t stop me from trying. I’m hell-bent on keeping a promise I made to myself: I’m going to make mindfulness a part of my daily routine.
You’ve probably read about how mindfulness and meditation facilitates a range of science-backed advantages for our mental and physical health. Studies show that it improves focus and interpersonal relationships at work, rewires our brains to help reduce stress and inflammation, decrease depression and anxiety, and improve focus and behavior in kids.
The changes aren’t just mental either: Research shows that meditation physically builds new gray matter in the brain and can even change your DNA in ways that may help keep disease at bay. And that’s just a taste of the science, which collectively paints mindfulness as one of the most beneficial things you can do for your sanity and overall health.
Related Reading: It’s Not Just For Your Brain: Meditation Actually Changes Your DNA
But, like many people, I’ve tried meditation a few times but never quite made it part of my routine. In a weird way, it seems that as the evidence supporting the case for mindfulness grows more overwhelming, so too does the prospect of fitting it into our overextended, evermore distracted lives.
“You’re certainly not alone in that experience,” says Martyn Newman, a psychologist and author who coaches corporate clients like telecom giant Sky UK on mindfulness and emotional intelligence. “It doesn’t take very long for people to discover that it’s not an instant fix. These techniques require practice to refine and develop, like any skill.”
Why Is Mindfulness So Hard To Ritualize?
One reason it’s hard to turn meditation and mindfulness into real habits, Newman says, is that most of us aren’t accustomed to doing what the practice requires: Sitting in silence and focusing for a prolonged period of time.
“I think we’re so addicted to external stimulation that we’re not often comfortable turning inward,” Newman says. “That’s why when you start to turn inward and try quieting the mind, it can quickly lead to a general sense of anxiety or agitation, which is a disincentive to establishing the routine necessary for it to become a habit.”
Many experts say it takes at least four weeks for most people to feel the results of mindfulness practice. In about twice that much time, Newman says, you can actually *see* the effects of meditation on the brain.
“The mind, just like a muscle, can be strengthened and you can develop the neurological pathways,” Newman says. “Within about eight weeks, these things show up in fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging] scans and you can begin to see the neurological connections. Your mind is sharper.”
This sounds great, but for many, the idea of putting aside 10-15 minutes per day to meditate in solitude feels next to impossible. Fortunately, there are some tricks you can use to squeeze it in and build up the habit over time.
Sneak Nuggets of Mindfulness Into Your Day
Newman walks readers through the process of practicing mindfulness in his aptly named book, The Mindfulness Book. The book contains basic things you’ve likely heard before: focusing on the breathing, letting thoughts flow by without judging them, living in the current moment, and so on. But he lowers the barrier for entry. You don’t have to find an idyllic mediation room to get started. He writes:
This is something that you can do anytime – you can do it waiting in line at the airport or at the checkout, or while driving your car, or you can do it while sitting and listening to a presentation.
Or, perhaps riding the Megabus from Philly to New York as I did. You can practice these techniques while you’re walking the dog, going for a run, washing the dishes, or whatever it is you may find yourself doing in the next 24 hours. One popular option is the shower, where studies have shown we’re already prone to declutter our minds and come up with new ideas. The point is to squeeze at least partial acts of mindfulness, typically centered around deep breathing and mental exercises, wherever they fit into your day.
Related Reading: 5 Daily Habits To Improve Brain Growth
For working professionals, Newman recommends conducting short mindfulness exercises before and after meetings as a way to cleanse the mind of the topics and take-aways from each meeting, preventing an anxiety or mental fog from spilling over from one meeting to the next.
While the goal is to work longer, more in-depth meditations into one’s life (typically 10-15 minutes at a time), Newman says that these bite-sized, one- or two-minute mindfulness routines woven throughout the day can help build the habit—and adjust the brain’s neural circuitry—in the meantime.
“Over the course of the week, you’ve instilled a habit of being able to settle the mind for one minute at a time,” Newman says. “Gradually increasing the frequency of those sessions is gradually cutting the neurological pathways in the brain which enables the mind to settle more quickly.”
For many, there’s still the issue of making it a consistent routine. I’m not much of a morning person, so reliably doing this every morning without feeling rushed to start my day is a long shot. For me, since my schedule and routine fluctuate a bit, I try to work it in on the bus, while walking to the coffee shop near my house, while reading a book, and at other miscellaneous moments throughout the day.
“Meditation is like taking your mind to the gym,” Newman says (no wonder it feels so daunting for some). “It’s a training technique designed to cultivate the skill of mindfulness.”
Apps Are Great, But Our Minds Are Analog
Like countless others, I’ve tried meditation apps like Headspace, Calm, and Mindbody. While there’s something useful and focus-inducing about the guided, instructional nature of audio, these little machines are the ultimate personification of the “external stimuli” to which Newman says we’re addicted. The idea of turning to a minefield of digital distractions in order to clear our minds seems more than ironic.
“I see apps a little bit like training wheels when you’re learning to ride a bike,” Newman says. “They are very helpful. Until the training wheels come off and you develop some independence in your practice, it’s very difficult to get depth and to keep moving forward.”
As I read more about mindfulness and learn to practice it, I find myself putting even more distance between myself and this virtual extension of my life. At night, I charge my smartphone in on the dresser across the room instead of next to my bed, using that precious pre-slumber time to meditate, read on paper, and eventually fall asleep, rather than checking the news or mindlessly going down some Instagram rabbit hole.
I do sometimes use the Headspace app to run through a guided meditation session—or even binge on a few of the free lessons at a time if I’m feeling ambitious over the weekend. But these “training wheels,” as Newman so appropriately calls them, seem to work better as an occasional alternative to checking Facebook, rather than a part of one’s daily routine.
Two weeks in, my own results are mixed, but promising. Squeezing in moments of mindfulness certainly makes it easier to get into the habit of sitting down for longer, in-depth meditation sessions, which I do four or five times per week. Even a few minutes of counting deep breaths, for instance, has a calming effect that’s immediate and palpable.
But, as the experts warn, some of the broader and more generalized benefits develop slowly; I’ve still had a few moments marked by anxiety about work or even depression that made me wonder if this whole mindfulness thing was paying off at all. Of course, it’s this kind of impatient, short-term thinking that the experts say derails people before the real benefits can really sink in.
So I am powering on, continuing to carve out spaces for mindfulness in my days using my own blend of mostly analog, minimally digital methods. You may find that an entirely different approach—perhaps involving a meditation class or even something more digitally-infused—works best for you. But I must say, putting the phone away does feel pretty great.
“You can apply mindfulness anywhere and at any time,” Newman reminds me. “It’s the ultimate mobile technology.”