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How to build mindfulness into your day

buddhist monks meditating

I started meditating in 2016 and have been doing it semi-regularly since then. But I’m still a long way away from the thing most of us are seeking through meditation: mindfulness. So I thought it would be useful to think about how to build mindfulness into your day.

A lot of the discussion of mindfulness focuses on meditation, and for good reason. It’s such an unusual experience for those who have never tried it before, whereas we’ve all had times where we’re in the moment. The various mindfulness apps are built around different meditations, because that’s a ‘product’ you can easily deliver.

Meditation is not the same as mindfulness

Whilst meditation is hugely important to building mindfulness, it’s not the ultimate goal. The goal is to become more mindful generally. So I’ve come up with a framework for how to build mindfulness into your daily life. I’ve called it BRIT.

It’s worth noting in advance that there’s nothing especially novel about this sort of framework for behaviour change. It draws on what I’ve learnt about habit building from James Clear’s Atomic Habits and BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits, as well as a helpful Ness Labs article on the difference between habits, routines, and rituals. What’s somewhat new is applying this to mindfulness, which has tended to be all about sitting for 20 minutes on a chair, or doing a meditation retreat.

B – Blocks

What are mindfulness blocks?

I define mindfulness blocks as dedicated chunks of time that you could put in your calendar. They are times in your day that you set aside for practicing mindfulness, and only that.

This technique is known in the world of productivity as calendar blocking. It’s been around for ages, but is associated more recently with Cal Newport, who argues that to get so-called ‘deep work’ done, we should block out time in our calendars, and permit no distractions during that time.

Whilst this framework is not all about doing meditation, it is still the most important way to enhance your mindfulness.

Some examples of mindfulness blocks

Mindfulness blocks can be a traditional ‘sitting on a chair and focusing on your breath’ meditation, or they can be doing other forms of mindful activity, such as walking or yoga. Longer blocks could be retreats of some sort. Less traditional variations could be things like listening to a piece of music, or if you’re fancy, sitting in a hot tub.

I’ve found it helpful to do different sorts of meditation in these blocks, as they can encourage you to look for different things in the rest of your day. For example, some encourage you to look for things to be grateful for, whilst others prompt you to focus on the act of walking.

The guidance varies on how much of this type of meditation to do, when to do it, and whether to split it up into smaller chunks or one long session. Ultimately, what is most sustainable for you over the long term is the best way. I’ve found doing a 20 minute morning meditation about right for me, as I can do it before life gets in the way. I’m also working on introducing a deliberate late-afternoon practice to set me up for the evening.

How to get started with mindfulness blocks

The best way of making sure you follow this practice is to put a recurring block in your schedule, at a time when you know you will be able to stick to it. You can also build these blocks into a routine i.e. a group of activities, if that works for you.

R – Rituals

What are mindfulness rituals

Rituals are activities that we perform according to a set sequence, which we follow in the same way each time. We do them with a greater level of intentionality or consciousness than routines, but they may start out as routines that we make more mindful. They differ from mindfulness blocks, in that the original purpose may not be to practice mindfulness. Rather, we apply mindfulness to something we already do.

Examples of mindfulness rituals

The best examples of mindfulness rituals are based around things we all do. You can, for instance, develop a ritual around waking up, taking a shower, or brushing your teeth. All it means is being consciously aware of what you’re doing, rather than letting your mind wander while you perform that activity. Oftentimes I will have a podcast or some music on while I brush my teeth, but have recently taken to focusing on the act of brushing instead.

Other good examples include journalling, progressive muscle relaxation, or having a ritual around making and consuming your morning coffee.

How to form mindfulness rituals

The easiest way to start a new ritual is to build it from a routine you already have, such as making your breakfast. If you typically do this whilst listening to music, or having half an eye on the TV, you could try stripping away those activities. You then focus solely on the tasks you’re doing: getting the cereal out, pouring the milk, and enjoying the Rice Krispies going snap, crackle and pop. Boil the activity down to its absolute essentials, and focus on those things.

To keep going with these rituals, and remember to do them, it can help to mark them in some sort of tracker. You can use a paper diary or a spreadsheet, but I personally like the Strides app. As well as reminding you to do this, it can give you a sense of satisfaction when you get to tick it off.

I – Interruptions

What are mindfulness interruptions

This may seem like a contradiction in terms – being mindful is about being in the moment, rather than being distracted. But reminding yourself to come back to the moment can be useful if you’re not a Tibetan monk who is practising mindfulness all day. Setting reminders of your mindfulness practice can thus help build your practice.

Examples of mindfulness interruptions

There are several ways to create interruptions to our day – it’s just that most of these are bad things! Most of the time our notifications come from email or social media. They are at best distracting and at worst anxiety-inducing. But you can instead make notifications work to your advantage.

The Headspace app, for example, can give you reminders to be mindful, and allows you to choose the number of reminders you want. Plus, they usually come with a short piece of wisdom to think about.
You can use these interruptions as a simple reminder to be more mindful, or to take a few moments to take a few breaths, do some stretching, or take a mindful walk. What you do with the interruption is up to you.

How to set up mindfulness interruptions

The best way of creating these mindfulness interruptions is through technology. You can use standalone apps for this, by searching for ‘mindfulness bell’ in your app store. These are designed to mimic the bell you might hear on a meditation retreat to start the meditation. Instead, you can use your phone’s alarm, or the alerts built into your calendar. My personal favourite is the Breathe app on Apple Watch, which gives haptic feedback as you complete your breaths.

Interruptions tend to work better if your existing number of notifications is low – otherwise your mindfulness interruptions can get lost in the noise. It also helps if you can vary when they come in; I find that predictable notifications lose their potency.

T – Triggers

What are mindfulness triggers

Mindfulness triggers function in a similar way to interruptions, in that you receive a stimulus and perform a behaviour in response. As with interruptions, what you do in response is up to you. The difference is that unlike interruptions, which come at specific times, they exist in your physical environment. You can think of them as ‘if-then’ rules.

Examples of mindfulness triggers

You can build mindfulness triggers into many of the habits you already do. Habits are the things we do unconsciously, without any real effort, such as switching on the TV, or tying our shoelaces. All it requires is for you to use this habit as a trigger to remind yourself to be mindful. It can be a reminder to notice your thoughts for a few seconds, or to perform some action like a short meditation or a body scan.

How to get started with mindfulness triggers

Of course, it can be hard to remember every time we’re supposed to have been triggered into mindfulness, but it gets easier over time. Plus, we can use tricks to make it more obvious, by changing the environment around us. For example, you can put a post it note on the TV remote as a mindfulness trigger for when you pick it up. You could tie your shoelaces together, so that when you come to put them on, you stop to think for a second.

If you write down your intentions for these triggers, you’re more likely to stick to them . If you have a journal, you could write down your trigger for each day e.g. “whenever I sit down at my desk, I will take three mindful breaths before starting work”. You can reflect on how well you did at the end of the day.

Next steps on how to build mindfulness into your day

As with most behaviour change, it’s advisable to start small. If you’re new to mindfulness, focusing on getting the ‘block’ element of this framework right is probably the most crucial. But if you’ve already built up a meditation practice, it can be good to use some of these other techniques to increase your overall mindfulness.

I like to work on one of each of these at a time, and use different techniques to make each one work. For blocks, I put those in my calendar; for rituals, I monitor them in a tracker; for interruptions, I set them up on my digital devices; and for triggers, I modify my environment. Some of these will work better for you than others. You can also combine them as you like, for example by using an alarm to remind you to do your daily meditation.

Of course, if you’re struggling, you can always set yourself a reminder to come back and read this article again, or make some notes for yourself now.