How To Develop A Mindfulness Practice That Actually Works

Mindfulness is a heck of a drug. Among its many benefits, mindfulness has been shown to increase resiliency, reduce anxiety and stress, improve relationships, treat heart disease, high blood pressure, and chronic pain, improve sleep, relieve depression, assist in the treatment of substance abuse, eating disorders, and other psychological issues, and increase overall life satisfaction.

The Basic Principles of Mindfulness

Defined as a state of psychological awareness, mindfulness is a practice that’s meant to enable being present with your life as it is right now—the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that you’re experiencing in the moment. In other words, mindfulness is the act of noticing what’s happening in your own life, moment by moment.

Because mindfulness is all about being present with whatever you’re doing, you can practice it during virtually any activity. No matter when you practice, there are a few key guidelines to keep in mind:

1. Don’t judge yourself. Mindfulness is not about assessing or critiquing the thoughts or feelings you observe within yourself. It’s not about “fixing” yourself. It’s simply about noticing whatever’s coming up for you in the present moment. Don’t assign labels to what you notice (“good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong), don’t beat yourself up for anything you observe, and don’t assume that thoughts = facts. Instead, just allow yourself to see and let it be.

2. Pay attention to your breath. Noticing the flow of your inhales and exhales can help you get present with your body, observe your emotional and physical state, and calm yourself down. No matter when you practice mindfulness, tuning into your breath will always enable your practice.

3. Forget about the past and future. Mindfulness is all about observing what you’re doing and what’s coming up for you emotionally in the present moment. It’s not about the past, and it’s not about the future. If you notice your mind dwelling on thoughts about the past or future as you’re trying to practice mindfulness, redirect your attention back to the present moment.

4. Tune in to your senses. Our senses—smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight—are some of the most powerful tools we have for observing our experience in the present moment. Whenever you’re practicing mindfulness, make a point of checking in to each one of your senses to ground yourself in the physical experience of the moment.

5. Do one thing at a time. At its core, mindfulness is about focus—and as research consistently shows, multitasking is the antithesis of concentration. If you want to practice mindfulness, then you’ll need to get used to focusing exclusively on one task at a time.

Designing a Mindfulness Practice that Works for You Now that you understand the guiding principles of mindfulness, it’s time to design a practice that fits with your life and is truly effective for you. Here are two ways you can go about this:

1. Set a time to practice. If you do well with routines, schedule a time to practice mindfulness every day. Even if it’s only for five minutes each day, the important thing is consistency. Write it on your calendar or schedule a reminder on your phone so there’s no chance of forgetting. This can be especially important when you’re out of your normal routine, such as during travel or business trips.

When the time to practice arrives, you get to decide what that will look like for you. Many people choose to practice mindfulness meditation, but you could also simply focus on being present with whatever you’re doing when the alarm goes off.

2. Identify “triggers” that you’ll encounter on a daily basis. If you don’t like the rigidity of routine, you can identify mindfulness "triggers" that serve as a reminder that it’s time to get present. These triggers should consist of anything you do on a daily basis, such as brushing your teeth, opening a door, turning on your computer, brushing your hair, shaving, tying your shoelaces, eating, washing dishes, and so on.

Whenever you encounter a trigger, tune in to your breath, notice what’s going on with each of your senses, and observe your head space as you go about conducting the activity. The more you practice, the more you’ll find that you automatically become mindful during these activities.

As you can see, reaping the benefits of mindfulness doesn’t require changing your whole life. Instead, all you have to do is commit to being wholly present for a few minutes a few times a day. Do it often enough, and the benefits will extend well beyond those moments and into every aspect of your life.