The power of lowering your standards

(Illustration by Dirk Jan Haarsma)

Every time I come back from a meditation retreat I am completely convinced that I’m going to keep meditating every day at home. And each time I fail to do it.

After all, circumstances are very different at home, so without exception my attempts to build a new morning meditation habit only last a week at best, before returning to the eternal snoozing of my alarm and feeling guilty for a few days before giving up altogether.

But as I was on the train, returning from a great meditation retreat on the countryside last February it hit me: Yes, in an ideal world I would wake up energized at dawn each morning, drink a contemplative glass of water and meditate for a full hour before transitioning to a session of invigorating yoga followed by a vegan, perfectly balanced breakfast. However I’m not a fairy from the woods or a Tibetan monk, so maybe I needed a more realistic approach that I could fit into my current lifestyle.

Identifying the problem(s)

Based on previous attempts, I knew I could probably do all of the above, once — or maybe a couple of days in a row — but then one day life would start creeping into my Gwyneth Paltrow fantasy: I am really tired, or I have an early morning meeting so I don’t have much time anyway or I haven’t slept very well and good sleep is essential so you could say the best thing I could do for my health right now is staying in bed… and we are be back to the snoozing. But I knew repetition is an absolutely vital part of habit formation, as the more we repeat a behavior, the more automatic it becomes, and we can stop relying on motivation (which as I had experienced, is highly volatile and therefore unreliable) to carry it out. So one of my first realizations was that I needed to find a version of meditation that I could repeat every day, under all circumstances, without excuses, even if the house is on fire (but maybe not in that particular instance).

I also realized there was another reason for finding a behavior I could actually do consistently: perceived self efficacy. We know that ‘feeling like we can do a behavior’ is equally (or even more important) than actually being able to do it when it comes to successful behavioral change (I’ve also written about this here). And often, our internal negative chatter (or inner saboteur as RuPaul likes to call it) becomes our own worst enemy as we inevitably fall off the bandwagon, convincing us we are incapable of change. This had eroded my confidence in the past, and probably contributed to me giving up, so if I wanted to succeed this time I had to trick myself into thinking that I could actually meditate everyday. The interesting thing about self-efficacy is that it is highly subjective: me being capable of meditating every day can be both true and false, depending on how I decide to measure success.

everything is relative, right?

This move away from the objective, quantifiable results we are trying to achieve and into the more abstract realm of what it would take for us to feel like we are succeeding can be counterintuitive, especially in a culture that is exaggeratedly focused on productivity! and ACHIEVING THINGS NOW! but it’s more likely to yield results in the long term than treating ourselves like military cadets on the first day of the academy. So if you, like me, have tried the cold turkey method before and failed, I invite you to reframe the way you think about success and see what happens.

DESIGNING A SOLUTION

After putting some thought into what had gone wrong in the past, this time I approached building the meditation habit differently. Here is what I did:

I lowered the bar…a lot

I needed a behavior that was absurdly easy for me to do. Both to make sure I would actually do it, and to help me feel confident that I could. Enter this 1 minute meditation I came across. Even for me it is really hard to find an excuse not to do something that literally takes one minute, regardless of how busy I am. After all, who do I think I am, Obama?

I anchored the desired behavior to an existing habit

I used BJ Fogg’s model here to choose an existing habit that took part at the same time and place than my desired behavior — having a coffee when I first wake up. I decided every time I finished my morning coffee I would immediately do my one minute meditation. This would make it easier because my morning coffee routine had been going for years, so I would be piggybacking the behavior to a cycle already built into my brain.

I made sure there was a positive feedback loop

Positive feedback is vital to reinforce behaviors at a subconscious level, as it associates a positive feeling with a specific action. In other words, if I wanted to stick to the habit I knew I had to engrave meditation = good in my brain by rewarding it after each session.

The most effective rewards are immediate and tend to be intrinsic (i.e. natural consequences of the behavior like me feeling more calm and peaceful after each meditation session), but best practice is to ensure there is a variety of rewards, so I wanted to find an extrinsic prize as well for the best chance of success. It so happens that Insight Timer — the app I use to meditate- has a feature that rewards you with a yellow star for every 10 day meditation streak you complete, regardless of the length of the sessions. And those tiny, meaningless stars turned out to be exactly what I needed ⭐⭐⭐

I could say the satisfaction of having done what I had set out to do, or the peace of mind that meditation brings was enough reward for me, but who am I kidding? I love shiny things and external validation, so the desire to keep accumulating yellow stars on my profile really did it for me. And if I’m completely honest looking back to the past months the fear of ruining my streak and miss a new star has motivated me to meditate more often than my desire to reach enlightenment (and I know I’m not alone here, our brain is built to prioritize short term rewards over long term benefits after all).

THE RESULTS

So… what happened?

After one year I can say I’ve meditated (almost) every day in 2020 — and I couldn’t have foreseen what was about to happen in February, but God knows it was good timing to start a consistent meditation practice…

[I don’t mean to brag but I also I most definitely mean to brag]

And interestingly, I very rarely meditated for a minute only. 90% of the time, once I had finished the minute, I felt compelled to stay and meditate for a bit longer (ranging for 10 more minutes to a full hour depending on the day), but this was always a bonus, not a requirement.

And I know what you’re thinking: is meditating a minute enough to achieve Nirvana? To which I would say: probably not, but it definitely beats staying in bed. Also: the habit building process doesn’t have to end there: once the ‘base’ routine is established, it is much much easier to build on your existing habit to make sure you move closer to the results you desire (a 2-minute meditation? what?) — but the hardest part is done.

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