When I first started researching mindfulness in 2011, the common attitude at the time was what I describe as “drive-by mindfulness.” Meaning, to develop the skill of mindfulness, you don’t have to cultivate a practice or dedicate time to it on your schedule. Instead, you can simply pause and take a few mindful breaths a few times a day and, voila!, you’ll be more mindful.
In the past several years, the growing body of research suggests the opposite: if you want to develop mindfulness, and therefore be more mindful, you have to put in the effort, no different than cultivating any other skill or capability. This is the main takeaway of the recent book by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, Altered Traits. Their book aims to methodically review and discern what is scientifically proven about mindfulness vs. what is not. They conclude that some benefits of practicing mindfulness can be realized quite quickly. However, sustaining and maintaining these benefits requires an ongoing mindfulness practice. With continued practice, benefits broaden and deepen and eventually become traits (dispositional or lasting qualities).
Given this body of evidence, I’m surprised that the field seems to be swinging a bit back the other way, to suggesting that you can reap the benefits of mindfulness by practicing for a minute or two here or there. When I dig into these sorts of claims, what I see is this:
- A recognition that it is difficult to get people to develop a new habit, especially one that, at first, seems like you are “not doing anything”
- An appreciation that to develop any new habit, you should start small
- An understanding that a lot of people are struggling with challenges like focus and stress, and that mindfulness can benefit them
And I am in complete agreement with all of the above. Where I see the “mindfulness-in-a-minute” argument get a little squishy is when it throws in a vague connection or claim to being “backed by neuroscience” or something similar.
The bottom line is this: if you want to realize the demonstrated, proven benefits of mindfulness, you won’t get there through a few minute-long pauses throughout the day (although you may find such pauses refreshing and useful). You must dedicate time to developing the skill, and you must form the habit of a regular mindfulness practice. You probably don’t think you’d lose weight by only eating well for a few minutes a day, and you wouldn’t expect to master a language or an instrument by practicing only a few minutes a day. Developing mindfulness is no different. You need to put in the time to get the results. But the results are well worth it.
Understanding that it can be difficult to build a new healthy habit, here’s how to begin your mindfulness practice so that it is manageable and sustainable:
- Start small. Many years ago, I trained for a marathon. The training regime I followed didn’t have me run 26.2 miles right away – it started with running three miles at a time, five days a week. If you are building up to, say, a 20 minute daily practice, start with a few minutes at a time a few days a week.
- Seek guidance. If you are new to mindfulness, you’ll need some instruction. Two of my favorite sites for free guided mindfulness practices are sponsored by UCLA and UCSD. Some practices are as short as three minutes or as long as 30-45 minutes.
- Fit it in. Like any new habit, we have to find the time. Mindful breathing can be done anytime and anywhere. Commute by public transportation? Listen to a guided mindfulness practice. Mindful walking and mindful eating let you bring mindfulness practice into everyday activities.
There are many activities that we are willing to prioritize, like eating well, exercising, and brushing our teeth. Mindfulness brings a range of demonstrated benefits; but there are no shortcuts. Like anything worthwhile, find the time for your mindfulness practice, and start building the habit.