How to create an irresistible meditation practice the Atomic Habits way

How to create an irresistible meditation practice the Atomic Habits way by James Clear

Building a Sustainable Meditation Habit from the Ground Up

In 2021 I read a book that CHANGED. MY. LIFE.

OK, so I read (and re-read) quite a few books that changed my life (Embracing Anxiety, Untamed and Unlearning Meditation to name a few), but this one must have changed many people’s lives because according to a newsletter I received from the author, it was the number one best-selling book of the year on Amazon.

Atomic Habits – by James Clear.

In this illuminating read on making “tiny changes to create remarkable results”, James provides a simple four-step framework in which to build good habits and break bad ones.

Good or bad, I’ve never much liked the word “habit”. It always felt scolding or smug. But the way James approaches habits is so inviting, I found myself doing things I’ve never wanted to do.

Like gardening. So far, I’ve overcome my aversion to a green thumb to create a pruning habit that I actually enjoy (and that my husband appreciates). Likewise, I started a chicken-coup-cleaning habit, and I also began a read-while-eating-cereal habit (that allowed me to finish James’ book far quicker than I normally would.)

I love how easy the “Four Laws of Behaviour Change” are and how the framework helps to remove barriers to creating the habits we often struggle with.

Naturally, I wanted to explore how one could create a sustainable meditation habit using the same framework.

I recommend buying the book for yourself because it’s packed with so much relatable goodness and lightbulb moments! But in the meantime, here’s how you can create a meditation practice the Atomic Habits way; i.e. sustainably, and one you’ll actually do.

The Science Behind Atomic Habits: Feedback Loops

Before we get into it, let’s first take a look at the basics of habit or feedback loops as described in Atomic Habits.

At the core of every habit is a four-step process that our brains cycle through automatically.

1. CUE ⇢ A prompt or stimulus that initiates a behaviour associated with reward or pleasure.
Eg. alarm goes off, hunger pangs,

2. CRAVING ⇢ A want or desire to obtain that reward, that motivates us to respond.
Eg. to feel something – pleasure, alert, calm, happy, revved up, etc

3. RESPONSE ⇢ The actual thought or action that defines the habit, that we do to appease the craving.
Eg. light up a cigarette, get a drink, predict an outcome

4. REWARD ⇢ Experience what we craved.
Eg. feel full, relaxed, accomplished, calm, in control, etc

For example:

Decent Morning Habit:

  1. Cue – Wake up
  2. Craving – “I want to feel alert”
  3. Response – Take a shower
  4. Reward – Feel fresh and alive

Feedback loop: Taking a shower becomes associated with waking up, thus forming a morning habit.

Dubious Afternoon Habit:

  1. Cue – 3pm brain fog
  2. Craving – “I want to feel energised and clear-headed”
  3. Response – Raid the snack cupboard
  4. Reward – Enjoy the sugar hit

Feedback loop: Eating snacks becomes associated with feeling focused, forming a snacking habit.

As you can see the same pattern applies to both “good” and “bad” habits.

How about an informal meditation habit?

Spot Meditation Habit:

  1. Cue – Something causes stress and overwhelm
  2. Craving – “I want to feel calm and in control”
  3. Response – Practise 3 big sighs
  4. Reward – Nervous system down-regulates

Feedback loop: Deep breathing becomes associated with feeling calm, forming a spot meditation habit.

Transforming the Habit Loop into a Practical Framework

Knowing how feedback loops work is in itself life changing. In Atomic Habits, James take this a step further, turning the feedback loop into a habit-building (or breaking) framework that he calls the Four Laws of Behaviour Change.

The Four Laws of Behaviour Change

In making our habits work for us, at each step of the habit loop (the what) we can build in practical, effective  treatment of that step (the how).

So, to foster good habits you would:

  1. (Cue): Make it Obvious
  2. (Craving): Make it Attractive
  3. (Response): Make it Easy
  4. (Reward): Make it Satisfying

And to dismantle bad habits, you would:

  1. (Cue): Make it Invisible
  2. (Craving): Make it Unattractive
  3. (Response): Make it Difficult
  4. (Reward): Make it Unsatisfying

Creating an Atomic Habits Meditation Practice Using the Four Laws of Behaviour Change

So how does Atomic Habits’ Four Laws of Behaviour Change relate to building a consistent and sustainable meditation practice?

Following the framework, the questions you would need to ask yourself are:

  • What will remind me that it’s time to meditate? (Cue: Make it obvious)
  • What will make me want to meditate? (Craving: Make it attractive)
  • What is the simplest way to actually do the practice? (Response: Make it easy)
  • What will make it feel good? (Reward: Make it satisfying)

Step 1: How to Make a Meditation Habit Obvious

How to create an irresistible meditation practice the Atomic Habits way by James Clear

According to Atomic Habits, the two most obvious cues for habits are time and location, using the simple formula:

When situation X arises, I will perform response Y

So, for a meditation habit, this might be:

  • Before the house wakes up, I will meditate for 15 minutes in the lounge room
  • At 9:30pm, I will play a 10-minute guided meditation sitting up in bed
  • When my alarm goes off at 6:30am, I will sit up in bed and meditate for 20 minutes
  • After I brush my teeth in the morning I will close my eyes and count 10 breaths
  • At school pickup I will meditate in the car for two minutes before getting out
  • When I arrive home from the office, I will wait an extra five minutes in the car and do a body scan

In this list, not only are we tying the habit to a time and location, but to other habits as well (like brushing your teeth.) James calls this “habit stacking”:

After [current habit] I will [meditate].

What other habits could you piggy-back a meditation practice to?

Step 2. How to Make a Meditation Habit Attractive

How to create an irresistible meditation practice the Atomic Habits way by James Clear

The way to make a behaviour happen (i.e. you meditate) is to make it enticing. If the anticipation of a behaviour releases dopamine, we will be motivated to do it.

While meditation itself has been shown to produce dopamine (as well as other feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin, endorphins and oxytocin), as a brand-new practitioner, meditation can feel awkward, difficult, and even painful as the body releases stress and the mind acclimatises to rest and focus.

So, until you are quite naturally craving meditation because of how good it makes you feel, there are many ways to make it attractive:

  • Choose an enticing technique – that you like, feels pleasant, is straightforward, or feels natural
  • Design a meditation area in your house – fill it with your favourite things like a scented candle, quality journal and pen, comfortable (and beautiful) cushions and a view of nature
  • Find a teacher and group to meditate with – create a sense of belonging by surrounding yourself with a community likeminded people

Step 3. How to Make a Meditation Habit Easy

How to create an irresistible meditation practice the Atomic Habits way by James Clear

Habits are formed is through consistency and repetition. Furthermore, the “Law of Least Effort” says that between two similar options, we will naturally choose the one that requires the least amount of work.

Therefore, when crafting a new meditation habit, we need to make our “meditation reps” so easy that there’s nothing to get in the way of doing them.

In his book Meditation Made Easy, Lorin Roche says, “Every meditator has to invent at least one rule that makes meditation difficult if not impossible.”

Furthermore, he goes on to list several ways “to make yourself miserable in meditation”, including: sitting in uncomfortable positions, meditating longer than you want to or need to, demanding a blank mind, resisting sleep and suppressing your emotions, to name a few.

What if instead you could:

  • Meditate for half the time you originally set out to
  • Do away with props or anything that takes up unnecessary “setting up” time
  • Wear comfortable clothing (or what you already have on)
  • Find the most comfortable place and meditate there
  • Let yourself check the time (or even, your phone)
  • Stick with a technique you know you can do
  • Do away with technique altogether
  • Meditate on the go – while driving, queuing, walking, lifting weights, waiting, eating, showering, etc
  • Leave your favourite meditation spot set up and ready to go
  • Set a foolproof minimum meditation practice – eg. 60 seconds, sit on the cushion, count 10 breaths, a one-way body scan, etc.

Step 4. How to Make a Meditation Habit Satisfying

How to create an irresistible meditation practice the Atomic Habits way by James Clear

The final law of behaviour change is to make it satisfying. In order to make a habit stick there must be some sense of success or gratification felt as soon as the habit is performed.

Meditation by its nature can be mighty satisfying. However it’s not necessarily immediately satisfying. While we can take the edge off with a spot meditation, feelings of deep peace and relaxation generally don’t appear the moment we sit down and start counting breaths. Meditation sessions that are completely restless, scattered and busy are normal. Likewise, realising you’ve become more patient, forgiving, easygoing or decisive can take weeks, months and years.

So how can we make the practice feel satisfying or worthwhile now when we’re squirming in our seats, dying of boredom and still as angry as ever?

Here are some ideas:

  • Track your session in a meditation journal that shows your progress visually
  • Use a meditation app like Insight Timer that both tracks your progress and connects you with others doing the same
  • Make a pubic declaration on social media that you’ll meditate for the next 30 days
  • Stack another habit you want to do (eg. check Instagram, eat chocolate, make a purchase) onto your meditation habit. i.e. After I meditate, I will scroll Instagram for 10 minutes.
  • Join a meditation challenge to keep you publicly accountable, and lap up the kudos

In Conclusion

To summarise the Atomic Habits method, the way to create a consistent, sustainable meditation practice that you’ll actually do, is to understand the function of habits – cue, craving, response and reward – and engineer each step in a way that works for you.

You do this by building a meditation practice that’s obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.

And you’ll reach enlightenment in no time!

Get a head start on your meditation habit with my foundations of mindfulness course, Learn to Meditate. Discover for yourself meditation that’s easy, attractive and oh, so deeply satisfying.

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