Creating a mindfulness habit

Have you ever experienced wanting to create positive changes in your life (move more, meditate, eat healthier etc.) and two weeks down the road, your good solutions went out the window?

You are in best company. Many participants of the 8-week MBSR course struggle when having to integrate 45min of mindfulness practice into their daily schedule. After reading this article, based on Charles Duhigg’s book ‘The power of habit’, you will understand why your attempts didn’t persist and what you need to do in order to establish a new habit that lasts. 

In a nutshell, creating a sustainable habit change means making positive use of the so-called autopilot. As our minds learn how to react to recurring external and internal events, habits and patterns establish. The coordination of an action is thereby moved out of the conscious awareness to become a seemingly effortless, automatic and unconscious reaction.  Without the minds ability to learn from repetition, we would still need to figure out how to tie our shoelaces or ride a bicycle each morning. Although, this ability comes at a cost, namely being absorbed by your thoughts while unconsciously pacing through your day which is exactly the pattern, we want to break through mindfulness training. Paradoxically we can use this autopilot function of the brain to create new mindfulness habits that in return help us to be fully alive and present and to not miss important moments of our life (while being on autopilot). 

To start, know that every automatized habit consists of three elements:

  1. A cue, a trigger that tells your brain which habit to use and puts it into automatic mode.
  2. A routine, which acts out the habit. This can be physical, mental, or emotional.
  3. A reward, which is the result of the routine and reinforces the habit.

The final essential component of a habit is craving. A craving is the anticipation of the reward when you get the cue, even before you actually get the reward. This craving pushes you through the routine so that you get the reward at the end of the habit. Real-life example: hearing the buzzing tone or beep when you receive a notification on your phone.

Over time, habits become deeply ingrained. Over many repetitions of this habit loop, the transition between cue, craving, routine, and reward become automatic, meaning you do not have to consciously think about doing the routine anymore, you just start doing it once you are presented with the cue. 

Research on behaviour change has revealed the key steps for establishing new habits:

  1. Pick one habit at a time. Although the idea of making a big change and integrating many nourishing activities into your daily life may be intriguing, research has shown that establishing one new habit at a time is most efficient and sustainable. Once this new habit becomes automatic, you can choose another activity that you would like to become a habit. 
  2. Tiny steps. Again, it might be tempting to start this new activity at full capacity but to make it become automatic and lasting we want to start literally with baby steps. Our brains learn through repetition therefore it is crucial to start small enough that we won’t skip any of the occurrences of the new activity we have planned for. During the first week do not more than a 10th of the activity, make it so easy that it would be ridiculous to skip (e.g. if you want to meditate every day, make the first unit 1 minute of meditation during that first week) if you have not missed more than one occurrence during week one, increase during week two.   
  3. Make use of existing (automatic) habits. One simple trick is to make use of the automatisms you have already established and attach the new activity directly to another habit you do automatically (e.g. brushing your teeth, getting dressed, preparing a meal etc.). This leaves no room for doubt about when you should do the activity. 
  4. Set a cue. Once the new habit has become automatic, the cue will become the trigger that tells your brain to start the routine. Until then, the cue is your reminder to consciously decide to start the activity that you want to become an automatic habit. While establishing the habit, you decide what the cue will be, this can be very different and personal depending on the activity you choose (e.g. a post-it, an alarm on your phone, seeing your sport shoes, walking up a flight of stairs, the doorknob to your office … etc.). 
  5. Identify the reward. As craving is the motor driving us to perform the routine it is important to understand what feels pleasant and rewarding about doing this new habit. During the first days, pay close attention to pleasant thoughts, feelings and body sensations that occur during or after performing the new routine. Do not miss this crucial step! Notice why it is pleasant, write it down and share it with someone in order to anchor this new knowledge. 
  6. Hold yourself accountable. How will you hold yourself accountable when you feel like quitting? Tell a friend, colleague or family member about your new habit and ask them if you can report to that person each week on whether you have done the activity. Maybe they want to join you? Or in some cases, there might be a group you could join that performs the activity. Fact is, we are less likely to quit if we are not the only one witnessing our “failure”. 
  7. Have a plan. Most importantly, be specific about when – at what exact moment, day and time – you want to perform the new habit. Write this in your agenda or block the timeslot in your calendar. Then set your cue accordingly. Part of the planning is to identify risks that could prevent you from performing the new habit. Be honest with yourself, think what could happen and what measures could you take now in order to mitigate these risks. Lastly, know that you can start fresh at any moment. There will be days that for whatever reason you won’t do the activity, not a big deal but don’t fall of the horse twice in a row, just get back on.