I am really, really bad about getting ahead of myself. I’m often too busy thinking about what I need to do six months from now, I forget to enjoy the simple pleasures of day-to-day life. In fact, up until very recently, I regularly forgot to give myself time off. (Now my girlfriend won’t allow it – I have to take at least one full day off each week, or she gets upset with me.)
Even though I start my day with the best of intentions, and actually have a pretty solid spiritual connection with myself, there just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day to get things done and still enjoy myself.
I’m often running out of time before bed, and then scrambling to fit in a few minutes of gratitude and inspiration. As a writer, inspiration is essential as a part of my daily routine, so not having time for it really throws my whole schedule out of alignment.
If you’re struggling to bring a little mindfulness into your life, too, here are a few tricks to help you get started.
1. Just breathe.
Numerous studies have shown that silence is an essential part of the human experience, and we should all take a little more time to enjoy the silence. Now, if you’re like me, the art of sitting in silence is completely unnerving – it’s hard to unwind when you only have your own thoughts to listen to. If that’s the case for you, try a little almost-silence at first – maybe a fan running, or sitting in your yard and experiencing nature.
The trick here is to ignore the outside stimuli that can get in and cause your mind to wander. Focus on the way you breathe – but don’t try to change it. Simply acknowledge each breath, and pay attention to how your chest rises and falls. It’s a very simple act, and it’s something you can literally do anywhere (well, except underwater, of course). Do you breathe through your mouth or your nose, or both? Does your chest rise and fall rhythmically? There are no right or wrong answers – you’re just observing, and clearing your mind of anything else.
2. Shower purposefully.
I’m also the type to start forming a plan in the shower. While shampooing my hair, I’m often thinking of what I have going on for the day. I’m focusing on the things I shouldn’t be focusing on, such as what I’m going to wear, or what I’ll make for breakfast, or how much work I have to get done to meet my own personal quotas. While these are all good things to think about, while you’re naked and soapy isn’t always the best time.
Instead, pay closer attention to the actual showering process. Take in all the scents, textures, and sounds in your shower – and don’t fill it up with singing (even though bathrooms generally have the greatest acoustics for home karaoke shows… just saying). If you find yourself drifting towards non-shower-related tasks, remind yourself, “Just showering.” According to Erin Olivio, PhD, these two-word cues help to redirect your focus back to your current experience. It’s a gentle reminder to yourself that this moment is just as important as what you’ll be doing after your shower.
3. Eat mindfully.
Eating is one of the few things that most of us do completely without thinking – how many times have you told yourself you were going to “just have a little popcorn” at the movies, and bought the smallest size… Only to run out before the opening credits have finished? It’s not uncommon, and it’s not entirely unavoidable – but it is a hard habit to break. It’ll take a lot of practice, and a lot of self-control the first few times – so make sure you’re not starving when you do this.
Pay careful attention to your food before each bite, and appreciate it in a way you’ve never appreciated it before. If you’re eating an apple, study the texture before you bite in – and then again, once you’ve broken through the skin. If you’re eating food that comes in small pieces (such as corn kernels, peas, or pasta), try to focus on each piece as an individual. Not only will you eat less, because your brain has longer to register what’s in your stomach, but you’ll also gain a new appreciation for something you do every day.
4. Switch hands.
Using your non-dominant hand for things can present a new set of challenges, and it forces you to be more purposeful. We don’t recommend using a knife or other potentially dangerous objects with the “wrong hand”, but things like loading the dishwasher, petting the cat, and even pleasuring your girlfriend can be done with a non-dominant hand and allow you to focus on the act of doing, rather than the act of getting done. (As a side note, if you’re not already focusing on pleasuring your girlfriend when you’re pleasuring your girlfriend, she might appreciate a little closer attention.)
More than just forcing you to focus, it’ll actually make the activity more fun, too – because fun is based in novelty, and there’s nothing more novel than feeling like you are learning something all over again. With enough practice, you can actually teach yourself to be ambidextrous, too – one of the many almost-useless skills I’ve picked up in my life. It actually has come in handy a few times, though, like when I’ve injured my normal writing hand and was unable to use it – ambidextrousness to the rescue!
I’m about to let you in on a little secret: I am a huge coloring book nerd. A few years ago, I actually had an entire wall in my room papered with coloring book pages, collected over the course of a few months. It took quite an effort, but it created something beautiful, and let me disengage from the stresses that were going on in my life. Sure, it didn’t fix the problems themselves, but it did help keep me from ripping my hair out over them. Now that the adult coloring book craze has totally taken off, we can use this trend for our mental health benefits, by simply focusing on the coloring.
Pay attention to how your colored pencil, pen, marker, crayon, etc. glide across the page. Is it a good feeling – are the pages nice and smooth, or do they “grab” the pen? Do you “line” before you color in? Do you blend? If you go outside the lines, how OK with it are you? You don’t even have to use an adult coloring book if you don’t want to; really, the only differences are paper quality and design intricacies. That means a kid’s coloring book should suit you just fine if you’re using crayons or colored pencils, and markers and pens can work well too if you don’t plan to use both sides of the page. They’re often a lot cheaper, too.
6. Play with your pet.
Taking time out of your day to play with your pet – or a friend’s pet, if you don’t have one of your own – leads to increased health in many categories, whether they’re directly connected with the pet or not. Pets don’t really let you focus on too much else while you’re playing with them (or at least mine don’t), so it’s an easy way to be mindful – and with a few simple steps, you can transform it into a totally mindful habit.
Listen to your pet breathe, and listen to him sleep. Some dogs are known to “talk” and run in their sleep, which is totally adorable. Run your fingers through his fur, and notice the texture. Is he silky smooth, or a bit wiry? Does he need a bath or is he good for now? Pay attention to the things you’d normally take for granted, and don’t forget to buy toys so he can have a little fun, too.
7. Remind yourself.
It’s completely okay if you can’t remember to be mindful all on your own. Even some Buddhist monks have bells that go off to remind them to be mindful, and they pretty much invented the art of mindfulness. A clock that chimes on the hour can be a great reminder without any real effort – simply train yourself to be grateful when you hear the chimes. Or, if you’re more of a visual person, I love the idea of sticky notes (I actually have 8 on my bathroom mirror right now, with a bunch of different affirmations.) These cues will eventually form a habit, but it is going to take a little practice at first.
No matter which cues you use, training your brain to see them as cues will help you in the long run. You may find that you still need the cues, even after you’ve been “programmed” – and that’s okay! Just give yourself permission to live in the now, and take the time to associate mindfulness with happiness. Even if it’s been a bad day, a minute spent being grateful for the things you have is a minute spent in happiness.