After 150 consecutive days of meditation, I’ve learned several lessons. First up: meditation is not a habit. Shocking.
This is, by far, the longest meditation streak I’ve put together.
Although it’s hardly on the level of my Fitness First streak (which is approaching 1,000 days) it is still a big deal. I am really proud of my consistency and discipline in sustaining this.
I’m not new to streaks: I have sustained a Fitness First streak since August 2013, and a daily journaling streak since January 2014. So, invariably, people ask me questions about habit creation.
Wanna guess the most popular question?
How long does it take to build a habit?
There’s a common belief that it takes 21 days to build a habit.
Whenever the topic of my Fitness First streak comes up, the question that inevitably follows is “how long did it take to build your fitness habit?”
In the early days of my fitness streak my typical answer was, “I’ll let you know when I get there.”
At some point I started answering the question differently. I realized that the flaw in the “21-day rule” wasn’t only in the timeline but in the application.
Eventually I started giving a different answer:
It’s not a habit.
To build my meditation streak to 150 days took me over 4 years of trial and error. It finally clicked into place for me when I applied what I learned from building my daily Fitness First routine. It turns out that I have a clear system for creating new daily routines.
The crucial first step was this mindset shift: understanding that, like fitness, meditation is not a habit.
In this blog post I will explain the mindset shift, why it’s important and how it applies to meditation.
What are we trying to build?
We often speak about trying to “develop a habit” around fitness, meditation, writing, eating healthy, and a range of other activities.
Note: For ease and clarity I’m going to focus here on meditation, but know that when I say meditation you can substitute whatever daily “habit” you’re trying to build.
Here’s the big mindset shift:
Meditation is not a habit. Meditation is a practice.
Not Just Semantics
This isn’t just semantics. There is a distinction and a difference between a habit and a practice. At least as I define them.
Why This Matters
The starting point for any endeavor is clarity around the intended outcome, and the reason why that outcome is important to us.
Understanding the difference between a habit and a practice is essential to being both clear and realistic about our intended outcome.
It is also what keeps us from feeling stuck or falling into the self-judgment trap when we feel like we failed.
If you think you’re building a habit when you’re really developing a practice, you will eventually reach a point where you feel frustrated that things aren’t “locking in.” There’s a lot of bullshit out there in the world. We easily fall into the illusion that if we do X for a certain amount of time then:
- we should get Y
- X will lock in as “automatic” and we won’t need to think about it anymore
When we start to distinguish between habits and practices, we can let go of some of those “shoulds.”
Definitions: Habit vs Practice
Here is how I distinguish between habits and practices.
Here is how I define habit.
Habit = a pattern of activity, behavior or thoughts triggered by a specific stimulus.
Basically, habits are things we do without consciously thinking about them. Habits are automatic.
Here’s an example: making my bed is the first thing I do in the morning (after getting out of bed, of course). I do this even when I’m staying in a hotel, because it’s a habit. I’m not thinking about it.
When I walk into my apartment, I drop my keys in a bowl on the counter. That is a habit.
We tend to think that we need to create habits to achieve our desired outcomes, and we speak about habits like they are these big things that are hard to implement. The truth is that we are great at developing habits. We are wired for habits because we have a high need for certainty. Habits provide consistency and certainty.
The problem is that we don’t always develop productive and healthy habits. Often our habits are unproductive or even harmful to us.
Unproductive:reaching for your phone to check email and social media before you get out of bed in the morning.
Harmful: reaching for a cigarette or a drink when you feel anxious or stressed.
Unproductive and harmful: Allowing your inner critics to dominate the conversation in your head.
The truth of my experience has been that often what holds me back is not the absence of a habit, but rather a current habit that needs to change.
One thing I’ve discovered in my journey is this:
Breaking an existing habit is often much more difficult than building a new habit.
The reason for this is that to break an existing habit we must first identify the pattern of behavior or thought and the stimulus that precedes it. Often one or both of those elements eludes us. We can’t change something if we don’t know it’s there.
My definition for Practice has two parts.
Practice = an action, behavior or thought initiated by a conscious, intentional decision.
In this view, practices are distinct from habits in two ways:
Unconscious vs Conscious:
Habits are typically unconscious; we often enter into the action without even realizing what we’re doing. Practices are typically intentional and conscious. They require us to think about them and make a decision to engage.
Externally Driven vs Internally Driven:
Habits are typically triggered by an external stimulus. In contrast, a practice is initiated by a deliberate intention that emanates from within us; this internal driver may even be at odds with what the external stimulus is prompting. In fact, in the early days of a practice this is often the case.
That’s where the second part of the definition comes in.
Practice = the process through which we condition new habits or break current habits.
Conditioning new habits or breaking current habits often takes a long time. It’s a process of figuring out what works and doesn’t work, of execution and repetition and trial and error. That process is practice.
Meditation is a Practice, Not Habit
For years I struggled with getting traction in trying to create a meditation “habit.” I had bought into the belief that this is a habit that can be cemented in 21 days, and when it didn’t stick I was frustrated with myself. I assumed I was doing something wrong.
I finally gained traction when I realized that the act of meditation itself is not the habit. Meditation is a practice to cultivate a range of habits, which include: awareness, compassion, non-judgment, mindfulness, presence and grace.
Although sitting for meditation has become easier for me, it’s not automatic. I can’t imagine that it will ever become automatic, because I must make the choice to sit and practice. Maybe that will change. It’s way too early to tell.
Internally Driven, Intentional Action
On each day for the past 150 days I made a conscious choice to sit for a specified time of meditation. Today, just like on day 1, I made an intentional, conscious choice to sit for meditation.
I was intentional in how I was sitting, where I was sitting, what I was listening to, and how long I would sit.
None of this just happened on its own. Not after 21 days, or 30 days or 149 days. Each day I had to resist the pull of whatever seemed more urgent and important to do this.
Process to Create or Break Habits
Meditation is a great example of practice as both a process to create new habits and as a process to break existing habits.
Meditation is also a practice through which we can begin to break some of our destructive habits, such as overreacting, gripping in anxiety.
It even helps silence that pesky inner critic.
Mindset Comes First
My strategies for implementing sustainable daily routines has proven effective, but those strategies don’t work without this important mindset shift.
Mindset comes first.
Once I understood what I was building, the pieces fell into place.
Do you want to learn my proven strategies for creating sustainable, daily practices? I am going to offer a training on this topic soon. Make sure you’re on the list to get first access!