How to Add a Vital Habit to Your Life

The streak began on Thursday, January 31st, 2013, in the Vinoy Hotel of St. Petersburg, Florida. It continues today, almost 1000 days later, this time from the Westin Hotel in Denver, Colorado. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning of my journey.

The Vinoy Hotel is an institution. A grand old dame built in 1926, it overlooks the picturesque waterfront of St. Petersburg. It was recently reborn after years of neglect, and served as a fitting location for me to begin a new, lifelong habit.

This was where I would finally overcome a major obstacle and begin a daily habit used by billions to reduce stress, eliminate anxiety, boost health, and change the world. It was in my room on that calm morning, with a beautiful sunrise peaking in, I finally started my practice of daily meditation.

I had tried and failed before. The first attempt was made in January 2006, the year of my anxiety struggles. It seemed like the perfect solution, and it surely would have helped, had I been able to stick with it. However, my inexperience, lack of a mentor, and the overwhelming stress of my panic attacks cut short my attempts. I didn’t have the willpower to persevere.

Fast forward three years later to 2009. I had overcome my anxiety attacks and was living the most stress-free life anyone older than a four-year old could enjoy. Single, no kids, working my dream job in the comfort of my own home, financially secure, and in the best of health, I had everything going my way.

At the suggestion of my chiropractor, Dr. Michael Sommers, I began experimenting with yoga and thought meditation would be the perfect compliment. I even created my own version, lying on the floor. Of course, I would fall asleep half the time. Clearly, I wasn’t committed to the practice, and so once again, I set it aside.

The third time was the charm.

Why was this time a winner?

To be completely honest with you, I felt like a hypocrite for not meditating. If you look back in the ETR archives, you’ll see we published two essays on the value of meditation in January of 2013. But there I was, a complete failure at an activity I knew was helpful, and I was recommending it to you, my dear reader.

That’s why it clicked, because it finally mattered to me. It meant so much for me to conquer this habit, I made it part of my entry into our 2013 Transformation Contest.

Here’s what I did to make this attempt work.

First, I was committed. I wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. There were built-in escape hatches in my first two attempts, but not this time. It was as though I had it tattooed on my body. I was going to make meditation a habit, come heck or high water.

Second, I set out a path of sure victories. I didn’t demand a 20-minute session on day one. Instead, I started with something I knew I could handle, just three minutes. And yes, just three minutes is enough to make a big difference. Once that was easy I increased the duration.

I even allowed myself to cheat a little bit. Instead of forcing myself to try not to think about anything – something that is still tough – I allowed myself to count my breaths. Each day I tried to take three to ten extra breaths per session compared to the last. This ensured my sessions were getting longer and longer. Within two weeks I was up to regular sessions of fifteen minutes. Today, an average session is twenty-one minutes, and it’s a rare day when I don’t meditate for at least a quarter of an hour.

These days I’ll do a second session on every flight I take. During takeoff, gravity forces you back into a relaxed position, perfect for a deep breathing session. (And also most helpful for encouraging a little nap.)

Third, I added mentors to my side. I am fortunate enough to have Matt Smith, my business partner, as my meditation coach. Matt’s been meditating for years, and was able to answer my questions, help me focus my efforts, and encourage me each time I reported a struggle or success. My chiropractor, Dr. Sommers, has also been meditating since his teenage years, and was helpful in showing me the proper way to sit in what can otherwise be an uncomfortable position. He even told me where to find a custom-made meditation pillow in Toronto.

Implementing those three factors covered my Five Pillars of Transformation required for any change in life. I had my Social Support, Accountability, Planning and Preparation, an Incentive, and a Deadline.

You may, if you desire enlightenment, choose to meditate 49 days straight like Siddhārtha Gautama, or if you prefer the trained killer’s approach to meditation, you might be satisfied with twelve minutes of meditation, as the United States Marine Corps is now teaching their recruits.

Jennifer Heil, Olympic Gold Medalist, recommends we take just “seven minutes each day to focus on your breath. Slowing down to six breaths per minute for seven minutes is enough to calm the nerves and allow our bodies to physically recover.”

Here’s how I do it.

Each morning I time my meditation with sunrise. I sit cross-legged on two pillows on the floor. My elbows are flexed at my sides, with fingers and thumbs touching to form a circle. From this position, I breathe deeply – taking approximately 5 seconds to inhale and 10 seconds to exhale. That’s it.

It’s not always easy to shut off the racing thoughts in my mind, but when random thoughts come, I try and push them out by focusing on my breathing. Fight the urge to plan your day as you breathe, and try to relax into bliss. Start with a few minutes each day, make it a routine, and add a few breaths to each session until you are up to three, seven, twelve, or twenty-one minutes. (I don’t recommend the 49 days in a row approach.)

What has it done for me?

It’s helped with one of my biggest weaknesses, impatience. I feel calmer in stressful situations. I’ve learned to ‘go with the flow’ when I’m late, when I’m in a line, or when experiencing technical difficulties with dropped phone calls or WiFi connections. Meditation has also improved my previously shallow breathing habits. Better breathing brings less anxiety.

When getting started, it was tough to sit there. Some days it still is. When your mind is racing it can be difficult to slip into serenity. But stick with it, you will get there.

Early on I focused on having one ‘memorable moment’ in each session. It could have been what felt like a perfect breath, or a second when I realized I was not thinking about work. Each of these little victories was a reward and encouraged me to continue with the habit.

But my big breakthrough came after a few months of practice. It was then I “Internalized” the benefits. That is to say, I simply realized I actually enjoyed it, and was no longer doing it for the external health benefits listed above.

This is something you need to do for all changes in your life. You must enjoy the habit, not just aiming for benefits of a habit. It will, along with having the 5 Pillars of Transformation in place, help you turn a behavior into a habit.

I’m so glad to have given meditation a third attempt. It’s made me a healthier and better person, and most important, given me a valuable experience I can pass onto you. Start today. Just three minutes is all you need.