I’ve always been bad at meditating.
We generally understand being “bad” at something as meaning that a task is beyond our ability: our drawings come out sloppy or our computer programs don’t work. But for me, “bad” didn’t even get as far as questions of skill—because I couldn’t even get it together to consistently show up at the cushion.
At least, that was until I applied behavioral science to my practice.
Now, despite being a travel journalist and a serial expat whose lifestyle generally wreaks havoc on long-term personal progress, I’ve found myself in a surprisingly hopeful position: I have close to three years of daily meditation practice under my belt.
How did I do it?
While conventional wisdom says that all you need to form a habit is the right amount of motivation, modern-day behavioral science views the issue as a mechanistic interplay of specific variables with techniques for manipulating them. My journey to a consistent practice began with a decision to use my life as a laboratory to test out these new approaches.
Gamification and a Quest for Consistency
I’m the son of a longtime meditator; my earliest memory is of my father teaching me concentration practices. I grew up reading tales from ancient India in which noble warriors meditated on mountains to gain supernatural abilities and sages plumbed the depths of the mind to unlock the secrets of existence. In my youth, I obsessively watched documentaries explaining how meditating monks could control their blood pressure and body temperature. I wanted to do these things, too. The only thing standing in my way was discipline: I didn’t have any.
In 2010 I learned about gamification, which replicates the addictive properties of video games in other Web and mobile applications. Like any child of the 80s, I had always been drawn to games, but the thought of blending them with self-improvement never occurred to me. Suddenly, gamification was all the rage. I used Duolingo to learn Spanish and Fitocracy to meet my exercise goals, and my digital achievements were praised by green lights, pleasing dings, and virtual awards.
The first game I applied to meditation was based on the 10,000-hour rule for mastery popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. Level Me Up is a mobile phone app that rewards you for progressively longer amounts of time that you spend on an activity. When applied to meditation, the app’s portable nature had me excited and practicing during every free moment—sitting on a bus or during a work break. I practiced daily for nearly 60 days, doubling my previous streak. But ultimately, the excitement of positive reinforcement wasn’t enough, and I gave up soon after.
So something was working; I just had to pinpoint what was going wrong. One solution came from social psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister, whose research suggests that willpower is a depletable resource. Do too much at once and there’s literally no gas left in your tank for any sort of self-discipline. It is a state ripe for ah, screw it moments—like when you order a burger instead of a salad or watch TV instead of working out. And sure enough, I realized that I had gone overboard on gamification, using apps to work on language learning, fitness, writing, and eating healthy in addition to my meditation practice. It was too much. My willpower tank was empty.
I decided to start tracking how successful—or not—my meditation habit was by using the the Verplanken-Orbell Self Report Habit Index (SRHI), a self-administered quiz that consists of 12 questions. Every day, I answered questions on how frequent or automatic my behavior was. Did I consider the behavior a part of my identity? Had I been doing it a long time? Each question yielded a number, which was tabulated with the others to form an overall score between 12 (not a habit) and 84 (definitely a habit). The idea was that the SRHI would reinforce the building of a new habit and help me pinpoint where and why the habit was falling off.
This worked for several months, but eventually I ran into a problem that many other behavioral psychologists encountered in their research: I kept forgetting to take the SRHI. When I forgot to record, my daily meditation often slipped through the cracks. Eventually, my practice sputtered to a halt. The act of tracking my habit, it turned out, was a habit in and of itself. Keeping conservation of self-discipline in mind, I focused exclusively on taking the questionnaire and dropped the meditation.
This was emotionally exhausting. My old view of self-help, with its emphasis on motivation and doing as much as possible all at once made me impatient. Limiting myself to one action, especially something as nebulous as taking a psychological quiz over and over again, seemed foolish. But it became a lynchpin routine, and when I eventually started meditating again, the habit lasted.
My SRHI scores still got shaky in times of emotional turbulence. When I was on deadline or had to travel, I’d find myself struggling to get to the mat or skipping meditation altogether. What stabilized my score was what BJ Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford, calls a “Tiny Habit.”
For Fogg, the efficient race to a solid habit is everything. He advocates ludicrously small habits, such as doing two pushups a day or flossing a single tooth, to fix the race and ensure that you cross the finish line.
This makes particular sense with regard to meditation. A friend once described the aftermath of a Vipassana retreat, during which the instructor encouraged attendees to continue the practice. “One hour in the morning” the instructor said, “and one in the evening!” My friend hadn’t meditated since.
Instead of trying to get in a half an hour per session, I dropped my practice down to a few minutes. It was easier to meditate, even when life got chaotic. If I was traveling, as I often was, I could still find the time for a short practice.
Some days weren’t as good as others. But I was on a quest for consistency, and while previously I would have blamed myself for being lazy, now I saw that the entire process worked like an engine. When a car stalls, you don’t blame the car—you pop the hood and figure out what went wrong.
Identifying the Problems (and What Worked)
Poring through my own data and digging into research by other behavioral scientists helped me identify two problems in the construction of my meditation habit.
The first was a lack of a clear trigger for the behavior. Implementation Intention, a behavior modification strategy coined by psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer, suggests that the more specific the trigger, the more stable the habit. Once I formalized a particular moment to meditate —as soon as I woke up in the morning—my practice became more consistent.
The second problem involved realistic goal setting. Mental Contrasting, psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen’s research into goal achievement, is a strategy that counters the negative effect that purely positive fantasies have on our future progression. The technique involves visualizing what exactly you want to accomplish and contrasting that with the obstacles that might prevent you from achieving your goal.
This made sense of my early attempts at meditation, when my procrastination mechanisms would go into overdrive imagining what if scenarios. As a result I’d get carried away with imagining being a good meditator rather than practically planning how to get there.
Mental Contrasting made me question exactly what I’d do if I were traveling. It forced me to work out the small minute details, like locating my timer and finding a cushion, that would make the difference between engaging or putting it off for later (which, as we know, really means never).
After four months of tweaking, I finally got a perfect score on the SRHI. I’d successfully formed a meditation habit! But even though I was meditating every day, my short practice wasn’t getting any longer than a few minutes.
Going Beyond Habits
After a year of meditation, I encountered a new pattern that took me beyond habits. Every time I increased the load of my routines—either by upping the number of minutes spent in meditation or by adding additional behaviors such exercising or stretching—there would be a leak in the system that disrupted the stability of my practice.
If I jumped to 30 or 45 minutes, I’d almost inevitably suffer the consequences of lower energy and emotional turbulence the following week. But when I increased by just a few minutes a week, everything stabilized. It appeared that pushing automatic routines was a totally different vector of behavioral change.
And that’s how gamification came back into my life. My favorite method of pushing skills are gamified 30-day challenges. My previous failures with games convinced me that the place for such challenges is in ratcheting already established habits into higher gear rather than simply kickstarting a new behavior. The short-term novelty may quickly fade, but not before you’ve leveraged it to increase intensity in your stable, long-term routines.
In completing several challenges in other skills, I noticed that although I never maintained the high levels of exertion—such as writing thousands of words a day in a writing challenge—my base level small habits would naturally increase when I returned to them after the 30 days were up.
To get to competency (much less mastery) in meditation will require several similar pushes—perhaps a gamified practice, a 30-day challenge, or more likely attending my very first intensive retreat. It is my hope that upon returning from such an immersive experience involving hours of meditation a day my home practice will have grown a little bit longer and stronger.
At some point repeated actions become bone deep. You see this in gym rats who work out no matter if they’re traveling or at home or with morning risers who always get up before dawn. After three years, I’m just now getting to the point where a day without meditation is simply a day unfinished.
[This story was first published in 2017.]