Making Practice a Habit

I decided to inaugurate this site with some thoughts on how to make “Practice a Habit”, which is one of the aims that we start to establish early on in a mindfulness course.  Regular mindfulness practice is core to re-wiring our brains so that unhelpful habits are replaced by more helpful ones and we see positive changes in our life on a long-term basis.  However, there is little guidance in the mindfulness literature on how to establish a strong daily practice.  For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn [2] says:

We have to make the time to practice and that does take some doing and requires intentionality and discipline [then later on adds] practice as wholeheartedly as possible as if your life depended on it.”

This is a great piece of wisdom but it falls shorts of explaining that discipline is really important to develop a habit.  Once the habit is established, discipline is still required to maintain the habit but is feels lighter.  Discipline is never a word that we like to hear, it evokes something hard and unpleasant even though we know that in order to achieve anything valuable in our life some discipline is required.  Gary Keller [3] gives us some good news about how much discipline is required to establish a habit:

The right discipline goes a long way, and habits are hard only in the beginning. Over time, the habit you’re after becomes easier and easier to sustain. It’s true. Habits require much less energy and effort to maintain than to begin. Put up with the discipline long enough to turn it into a habit, and the journey feels different. Lock in one habit so it becomes part of your life, and you can effectively ride the routine with less wear and tear on yourself. The hard stuff becomes habit, and habit makes the hard stuff easy.

How long do you have to maintain discipline? Researchers at the University College of London have the answer. In 2009, they asked the question: How long does it take to establish a new habit? They were looking for the moment when a new behavior becomes automatic or ingrained. The point of “automaticity” came when participants were 95 percent through the power curve and the effort needed to sustain it was about as low as it would get. They asked students to take on exercise and diet goals for a period of time and monitor their progress. The results suggest that it takes an average of 66 days to acquire a new habit. The full range was 18 to 254 days, but the 66 days represented a sweet spot—with easier behaviors taking fewer days on average and tough ones taking longer. Self-help circles tend to preach that it takes 21 days to make a change, but modern science doesn’t back that up. It takes time to develop the right habit, so don’t give up too soon. Decide what the right one is, then give yourself all the time you need and apply all the discipline you can summon to develop it.

Now we know how habit develops and how long a habit that can take, but what does science tells us about habits themselves? Charles Duhigg [1] gives us a great explanation:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: THE HABIT LOOP. Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually, whether in a chilly MIT laboratory or your driveway, a habit is born.

Applying what we know about habits, we can say that to establish a practice you have to:

  1. set your intention – this can take the form of a short sentence: “I want to practice mindfulness so that …
  2. define a cue – it could be as simple as waking up in the morning and doing the body scan lying down in bed, which allows us to “fall awake” while still enjoying staying in bed a bit longer 😀. Other common examples are: coming back from work or before going to bed when the kids are asleep; basically, any transitions in our daily life can be a good time to slot in our daily practice.
  3. do the routine – which in our case is a practice.  It is very helpful to follow a recording or use a timer for a set duration so that we can focus on just doing the practice and not having to make decisions while practicing.
  4. reap the rewards – everyone will react to practice differently, and some days will be better than others. It can take some time to notice the rewards, although there are exceptions, mindfulness is rarely instant gratification! Write down the “rewards” you notice, that might give you some renewed energy when changes to your daily routine make keeping the practice alive difficult.

To help you establish your practice, I have summarised these points on this form: Mindfulness Habit Tracker Feel free to print and use this this form to support your journey.

I hope that these nuggets give you some food for thoughts and help you establish your mindfulness practice or any other habit for that matter.  All the best, the effort is worth it, and remember what Jon Kabat-Zinn said [2]: “practice as wholeheartedly as possible as if your life depended on it. Because it does – in more ways that you think.”


Let us know how you established your mindfulness practice and what your rewards you reap from practicing mindfulness regularly by posting a comment below.



[1] Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change (p. 19). Random House. Kindle Edition.

[2] Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living, Revised Edition: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation (Kindle Locations 362-364). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Keller, Gary. The One Thing: The surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results (Kindle Locations 637-638). Hodder & Stoughton. Kindle Edition.

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