You could argue that life is a series of successes and failures. Did you succeed or fail to live up to your parents’ expectations, to get the grades you wanted in school, to get the job you wanted, the promotion you wanted, the social life you wanted, the house you wanted?
Of course, life is made up of days, with each day offering multiple chances to “succeed” or “fail.” Do you succeed or fail to get out of bed when your alarm goes off? Do you succeed or fail to fit some movement into your day? Do you succeed or fail to cook dinner rather than pick up takeout (and if you cooked, was that meal a cooking success or failure? Did you succeed with going to bed on time instead of reading just ONE more chapter of your book or watching just ONE more episode of that show that has you hooked?
I think I our ideas about what means success and what means failure can be major obstacles to forming habits that support our health and well-being, as well as obstacles to untangling ourselves from habits that are not supporting our health and well-being. The good news is that mindfulness supports habit change by helping you avoid those obstacles.
Bringing awareness to your current habits
Mindfulness is famously defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Most of the time, we’re not in the present moment. We’re on autopilot, going through the motions of life — eating, driving or even talking — while our minds are busy rehashing the past or worrying about the future.
So how does this apply to daily living, and forming habits?
Practicing mindfulness makes you more aware of your thoughts, feelings, behaviors and habits, which is why the “nonjudgmentally” part is important — odds are you’re going to become hyperaware of aspects of yourself that you’re not thrilled about.
Maybe you realize you’re kidding yourself about how often you go to bed on time, or how many days include some type of physical movement. Perhaps you discover you eat mindlessly not occasionally, but at almost every meal.
Feeling judged — even when you’re the judge — can lead to shame and guilt, neither of which are effective motivators for positive change. But you can practice noticing your judgments as they pop up, then temper them with kindness, curiosity and acceptance.
Kindness and curiosity help you identify, explore and understand what might have led to the thought or behavior you might feel judgmental about. For example, maybe you ate the whole pint of ice cream because you were feeling deeply anxious or lonely. When you’re mindless, there’s no room for curiosity—or for growth and change.
Acceptance simply means acknowledging that whatever you are thinking, feeling, doing or experiencing is how it is in the present moment. This helps you avoid wasting energy beating yourself up or wrestling with denial so you can instead explore how to make positive changes.
Starting again is the success
We can practice mindfulness in many ways, but mindfulness meditation is the “formal” way to practice mindfulness. Not only is mindfulness meditation a powerful tool that can help improve health and well-being in a number of ways, but the very act of practicing this form of meditation is a wonderful metaphor for what happens when we try to form habits.
If you’ve ever practiced mindfulness meditation, odds are you started by turning your attention to your breath. (There are other ways to practice, but this is the most common, especially for beginners.) You intend to keep your attention on your breath, rather than to let it be hooked by thoughts, but how does that work out. Not well, because you suddenly find that you’re thinking about a conversation you had yesterday, what you plan to make for dinner, or that hotel reservation you need to make for an upcoming trip.
Your mind wandered, because that’s what minds do.
So a fundamental part of practicing mindfulness meditation is noticing when your mind has wandered and bringing it back to your breath. And doing it again, and again, and again…without judgement.
It’s not a failure when your mind wanders — it’s a success when you noticed that your mind has wandered and you return it to your breath.
You might have some meditation sessions where your mind wanders less, others where it wanders more. Sometimes, there no rhyme or reason. Other times, you come into your meditation during a tough day, and it’s no wonder that your mind was all over the place.
No matter how your session goes, you bring your mind back to the present moment, to your breath, non-judgmentally. That is a critical notion for being mindful and for practicing meditation, but also for any kind of habit formation.
Non-judgment as a motivating force
When you set out to form a new habit (or unform an old habit) it’s not about accumulating an unbroken string of doing (or not doing) the behavior that forms the habit. That’s unrealistic, because you’re human and you are not perfect, because no human is. We are messy and flawed, and that is beautiful. We have good days and bad days and life throws us unexpected curveballs. Because that’s life.
Each time you wander from the path of your new habit, it’s a success when you return.
Some people find it relatively easy to form habits. They decide, “I’m going to go for a walk every day,” and they do it.
Other people might decide the same thing and walk every day for a week. But then they miss a day. If they define and internalize that as a failure, it can make it much harder to get back on track.
Let’s say you say to yourself, “I missed a day of walking. Clearly I’m a failure and a loser.” Well, that’s not kind, and it certainly doesn’t feel good. Odds are it’s also going to make you want to stick your head in the sand to try to block out feelings of shame, which makes it harder to resume the habit.
However, you could say to yourself, with acceptance, kindness and non-judgment, “Oh wow, I was really great with this new habit for a week and now I’ve missed a few days. But today’s a new day, and I’m going to start again.” That is the success. It’s the restarting that is the success.
Curiosity comes into play when you explore why you got off track. Were you sick? Did you prioritize something else? Did you forget (as can happen with new habits)?
Maintaining habits for the long term
Even skilled mindfulness meditators with years — or decades — of practice under their belts experience wandering mind. Even people who have maintained a habit for years — or decades — will experience days (or weeks, or longer) when their habit falters.
The longer you practice mindfulness meditation, the easier it becomes to notice that your mind wandered. That too is a success, because that means you’re building awareness. The more you practice, the more your awareness of your mind builds. Then, when your mind does wander, it doesn’t wander very far before you notice and are able to bring it back to the object of your attention.
(If you’ve had the very common experience of realizing that your mind has been of in LaLa land for minutes, for half hour an hour, maybe for longer, and you really didn’t even notice, then you can see how meaningful it is to notice more quickly and then choose if you want to be in the present moment, or if you do want to daydream. Because sometimes daydreaming is exactly what you want to do.)
And similarly, when establishing or maintaining a habit, the behavior that’s the base of the habit becomes more ingrained (more habitual). It’s can feel more natural to continue to maintain the habit. However, as I often tell my clients, even well-established habits need to be nurtured and cared for. Kind of like garden plants — you may have to be more intentional about their care when they’re young, but they will always need some care.
In both cases (meditation and habit maintenance), non-judgment, acceptance of what is happening in the moment, and honoring your very human imperfections, can help you return to doing what is important to you.
Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.
Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!
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