Have you ever set a goal or resolved to make positive change in your life, and then found it hard to keep up. Here is a simple idea which can help.
Don’t underestimate the value of small actions, repeated daily. In his book, The Slight Edge, author Jeff Olson makes this point very clearly. Just as compound interest can turn modest savings into a sizeable pot over time, the compounding principle works in all aspects of our lives.
An easy to understand example is in the area of keeping fit. It’s common to go into a new year with ambitious plans to exercise. Gyms make a fortune out of memberships taken out in a flurry of good intentions.
But an easier way to get fit is just to add in a brisk 20 minute walk to your daily routine. After a day, or a week, this won’t make a huge difference. But if we do it every day over the course of a year, that will add up to over 120 hours of exercise and will have a noticeable impact on your fitness level.
So why don’t we all do it? As Olson points out, these small changes are easy to do, but just as easy not to do. We need to make an effort to start with, but as we go along it becomes easier as we build new habits. The secret is to keep it going, day after day.
And of course this applies to work as well. Can you make a habit of taking five minutes every morning to plan your day, and then focus on getting your most important task done first. You will achieve more this way than if you start the day by looking at emails or social media. Making the choice to plan and prioritise can also become a habit.
There is a saying from the Buddhist tradition which shows this approach has ancient roots: “Sow a thought; reap an action. Sow an action; reap a habit. Sow a habit; reap a character. Sow a character; reap a destiny.”
The habit that made the biggest different to my life last year was starting a regular morning meditation. I made a commitment to do ten minutes a day, just before starting work. Again, one day’s meditation doesn’t change you significantly, but over time a short regular practice trains your mind so that you find it easier to focus and stay calm in the midst of challenges.
Practicing a simple meditation develops the part of the mind that is able to step back and observe, and then make choices. A good meditation practice is one that simply focuses on the breath. You can do this both as a formal and informal meditation practice.
For a formal meditation, find a time where you will be undisturbed (even a seat on your commuter train is better than nothing), and sit with your spine straight, and your feet on the floor. Close your eyes and allow your mind to focus on your breath. Don’t try to change it, just notice your breathing. Notice how it feels as the air comes in and out. Notice the rise and fall of your belly and chest. When your attention wanders (as it will), then as soon as you notice, gently bring your focus back to your breath.
It is helpful to set a timer so that you know when your time is up. Ten minutes (or even five minutes) a day is enough to be helpful, and 20 minutes is ideal. To keep a formal practice going, commit to making it a priority, and do it at the same time each day so it starts to become a habit.
Informal meditation is something that you can practice throughout the day. Just take a moment now and again to pause, and notice your breathing. This can help you to remain calm and mindful throughout the day.
What small new habit could make a big difference over time in your life? Please share in the comments below.