When I talk to people about meditation, one of the topics that comes up regularly is the challenge of building a regular, daily practice. Often people know that meditation will help, but struggle to find the time to fit it in – or their practice falls to the wayside when things get too busy.
Well I’ll start by referring back to an often quoted Zen saying (which I’m paraphrasing a little here) that if you feel too busy to meditate, you definitely need to meditate. Actually, the quote is something more like:
You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour.
While I’m not saying you should definitely sit for an hour every day, if your brain feels harried, hurried, stressed and full of busyness, meditation can be a huge help.
With World Meditation Day falling on the 15th of May, this month is a great time to give meditation a go.
Before I ingrained meditation in my life as a proper daily practice, I had been living in a state of permanent low level anxiety for a long time without realising it. This was definitely one of the reasons behind my ongoing struggles with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), as stress is a well known trigger for digestive problems. Meditation, while not being the only tool I use, has been a really important part of managing this, as well as supporting my general wellbeing.
Meditation has allowed me to be more aware of when my mind is going down a rabbit hole of unhelpful worry which can then spiral into tummy troubles, but to also be more compassionate of my body when I do have a flare up. More generally, it has made me a lot less reactive in many day to day situations.
Now, there’s a common misconception that meditation is all about stopping thoughts and having a completely clear mind.
Well I hate to break it to you, but this really isn’t possible – or desirable! And that’s not really the point of meditation. It is much more about becoming aware and compassionate of a wandering mind, rather than trying to brutally control it. Meditation helps build focus, clarity, awareness and sometimes, yes, a real sense of presence and being in the moment.
And I’m not the only one to experience this, numerous studies have shown again and again the positive psychological and physiological changes that have resulted from daily meditation (if you’re interested in reading more on this, I’ve included a few extra reading materials at the bottom of this post).
But the question is, even armed with this knowledge, how do you keep your meditation practice going when life gets really busy?
How to stick with meditation when life get busy
1. Make meditation a habit
Sorry, this isn’t really a very sexy tip to kick off with, but if you’ve put a little bit of groundwork in, when life tips into overload you’ll already have some foundations in place. This means you can keep meditation in your day without having to think about it or waste brain energy on deciding whether or not to meditate.
So how can you do this?
Finding a regular time to meditate each day makes it much easier to fall into meditation with less effort. I personally prefer meditating as soon as I wake up as I know I’m more likely to get distracted later in the day. I also know I feel better jumping into my work or activities for the day when I’ve meditated.
However find a time that works for you. It might be lunch time, when you get home from work or just before you go to bed. Experiment a little with this. And block it out in your calendar as you would a meeting so that you’ve assigned the time. You might even want to put a calendar alert on your phone that pops up to remind you to meditate.
It might also help to identify and define your meditation habit loop routine as set out in Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit, of which you can read an extract here. This loop includes your cue – routine – reward.
My cue is waking up (normally feeling a bit harangued after a night of crazy dreams).
My routine is turning over and turning on one of my favourite guided meditations.
And my reward is the feeling of being more calm and alert, which I know I will feel after meditating.
I do this without thinking as it’s a habit that I’ve now had for 2-3 years. Previously I’d meditate in different situations at random times during the week and I didn’t really have much of a structure around it.
Your cue, routine and reward might well be very different, but it helps to understand them so that you can build a loop that works before for you. And remember, it normally takes at least 4 weeks to form a habit so don’t give up if it feels like you’re not making much progress to start with.
2. Even 5 minutes is a good start…
Most of the evidence around the benefits of meditation indicates that 20 minutes a day is what will give you the most noticeable outcomes. However if this feels really unattainable, even 5 minutes of breathing or gentle mantra repetition or whatever type of meditation most resonates with you is helpful.
There are so many different types of meditation you can dip into; having a few different types up your sleeve and of differing lengths means that you can already have some shorter meditations to hand if 20 minutes feels too long on a particular day.
And remember, meditation isn’t just about the formal practice. You could choose to sip a cup of tea mindfully for a few minutes, take 10 minutes of walking meditation during your lunch break or simply inhale and exhale with intention for a few minutes between meetings.
3. …but don’t beat yourself if you miss the odd day
If you do happen to miss a day of meditation, be kind to yourself and try not get into a negative self talk spiral. Getting stressed about not meditating kind of defeats the purpose of meditation!
Developing a greater sense of self compassion has been central to my own practice and if I do miss the odd day here and there, I just allow that to be the situation. I know I’ll meditate the following day or that I’ll instead incorporate one of the less formal mindful practices I’ve mentioned above in my current day.
It is not a personal failure and you won’t go back to ground zero if you don’t religiously meditate every single day of your life.
I like to take the same approach as if your mind wanders in meditation; just notice you’ve missed a day and gently, kindly bring yourself back to your meditation habit the next day.
4. Find a meditation group to help keep you on track
Sometimes a personal meditation practice can be hard to stick with and it easily falls away when other things come up (which they will!). If this sounds like your experience, you might want to consider finding a regular group of people you can meditate with to help you stay on track. Having this external commitment makes it much easier to stick with behaviours.
If you are starting out, you could join a formal ‘learning to meditate’ programme which has regular refresher followup meditations. If you are a more experienced meditator, there are many local groups where people come together on a weekly or more often basis to meditate together.
There is also something very different about the energy of meditating with a group and you might find that it inspires you to stay with your practice if your motivation is waning.
If you are interested in meditating as part of a group, I also run monthly (hot chocolate!) meditation sessions at The Poetry Cafe in central London; check out my Upcoming Events page for the latest dates and times.
5. Use a meditation app
While technology is often berated for our shortened attention span and lack of real life connection, it can also be a huge help. There are many great meditation apps that can help keep with daily reminders, rewards and little pearls of meditation wisdom. They can also be a lovely way to feel like you are part of a meditation community without actually joining a formal meditation group.
My personal favourite is Insight Timer as it allows you to either meditate in silence for a set period of time or to use one of the many excellent guided meditations on the app. It covers many types of meditation of differing lengths, so I use it to explore different styles and have found a set of ones that I particularly enjoy. I sometimes go totally off piste and try a meditation at random and see how it feels for me. It’s totally free so is a great way to explore meditation.
Other more purely mindfulness-based apps include Calm and Headspace, and there are many more apps coming out each month. I suggest trying one or two and seeing what works for you. The little reminders and triggers from apps can be a useful reminder when you’ve slipped over into busyness.
My main message in all of this is that life will of course get extra busy and stressful at certain times, and it may feel like meditation is difficult to fit in around this.
However the reality is that these are often the times when you need meditation the most.
If you put some good foundations and routines in place, your meditation practice is much less likely to fall between the cracks of your very full to-do list and may even help you to stay much more on top of it.
HEALTH NOTE: Please note that meditation may not be suitable for you if you suffer from certain mental health/health conditions. If you have been diagnosed with epilepsy, depression, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or a dissociative personality disorder, please ensure you check with your supporting clinical team before taking part in meditation.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson
Sara Lazar et al, Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness Neuroreport. 2005 Nov 28; 16(17): 1893–1897.
The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation: a review of contemporary research with a comprehensive bibliography, 1931-1996 by Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan