Over the weekend I was invited to present at the Australian Meditation Conference to talk about the new documentary I'm working on, My Year of Living Mindfully, which started production eight months ago after I woke up to the fact that I was a stressed-out, overworked mother of two small kids who couldn’t find the time for what I considered to be an essential key to my health and wellbeing – meditation.
As I confessed to the audience of psychologists, scientists, healthcare providers, and meditation teachers at the conference, I should have known better. I’m a health journalist with an autoimmune disease. In fact, my book outlines in great detail how the latest science demonstrates that our mind, body, and the world around us are inextricably linked to our health.
It’s ironic that the final chapter of my book was called Lasting Change because meditation – one of the most important things that I had done in the past in order to manage my chronic stress and therefore my chronic disease – was the one thing that I had allowed to slip.
Why is it that we always seem to need some of a catalyst to get us back on track? I had insomnia and troubling early warning signs that my illness was going to flare, so I resolved to meditate every day for a year and enlisted a team of scientists to track me along the way.
I’m now 268 days into my project and in that time I haven’t skipped meditation once. So it wasn’t surprising that one of the questions from the audience after I shared all this at the conference was about how I’ve managed to find the time to meditate. After all, it’s not like there are suddenly magic minutes in my day.
In the days since the conference I’ve thought a lot about this question. Despite the fact that best-selling books and catchy click-bait headlines make habit change sound all-so-simple, we actually know stunningly little about what the real keys to sustained behaviour change are. In fact, a review which took into account all of the 100 behaviour theories being bounced around by experts concluded; “It is currently unclear what conditions are required to maintain the new behaviour and prevent relapse, or to re-establish the new behaviour after relapse.”
So how have I done it? Where have I conjured up an extra 45-minutes to meditate each day that I didn’t seem to have eight months ago? The one-word answer is simple but not easy; planning.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I’m a fan of behaviour change expert Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology in the Psychology Department at New York University. (Here’s my podcast episode with him.) As I wrote in my piece Read This Before You Make a New Years Resolution, he’s developed a highly effective technique called If-Then planning to help us overcome the gap between what we intend to do and what we actually do. The idea is that we do some basic planning by specifying the action we intend to take, when and where we’ll undertake it, and what we'll do when we slip up.
I started by committing to 20 minutes of sitting meditation each day and have built from there. After much trial and error over the last few months, my meditation If-Then planning has evolved to look like this:
If it’s 5:40am in the morning, then I will get up and meditate in my living room for 45 minutes.
If I need to sleep in a bit longer, then I will meditate at work on my lunch break.
If it’s the weekend and I’m not at work, then I will meditate in my home office while my one-year-old son has his nap and my five-year-old son is chilling-out listening to an audio book.
If my day has proven to be too busy and I still haven’t meditated, then I will meditate in my bedroom as soon as the kids are in bed.
If you’ve read anything about some of the emerging evidence about habit formation, which encourages us to establish a regular time and place in which we perform our intended new habit, you may be surprised to read my If-Then meditation plan because there’s not really a set time of day in which I meditate. About three out of seven days a week I manage to meditate first thing in the morning, about two days out of seven I meditate on my lunch break at work, and about two days a week I find myself going all the way through to the end of the day before I’ve found the time. There are also some days in which my intended 45 minute practice gets broken up into smaller chunks throughout the day.
I know this all sounds rather complicated and specific to the circumstances in my life, but I think this makes an important point. There’s no way that at the start of this project that any expert could have written me a specific plan that predicted the unique circumstances in my life that would prevent me from finding the time to meditate. In fact, if I had gone into this project with the intention of starting a daily meditation habit by meditating at the exact same time each and every day, I can tell you now that I would have failed. That’s why I think the If-Then technique is so effective. It has evolved as I’ve discovered the unique obstacles I’m facing.
I’ll leave you with one last point, while Gollwitzer performed a review of 94 studies looking at the effectiveness of If-Then planning and it was shown to effective in helping people to achieve their health goals, it’s way too simplistic for us to conclude that a little bit of planning is all we need to do in order to establish long-lasting healthy habits. Indeed, many of the studies demonstrating the effectiveness of Gollwitzer’s technique have been combined with other motivational strategies including positive experiences and boosting self belief.
I could write about all this stuff all day long and there is of course another discussion to be had about the role motivation, self-control and willpower, but for now, I’m off to get my 45 minute meditation done before my lunch break finishes.