Flossing your teeth nightly. Exercising regularly. Practicing mindfulness daily. These are good, even great things, to do. Though, many of us struggle to do any of them regularly. Just ask my dentist.
Why is it so difficult to begin and keep a good habit?
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At the end of my recent mindfulness meditation retreat, the teacher mentioned that many people go on long, silent retreats every year and meditate for hours but once home their daily practice can fade like the setting sun. It’s true. One of the hardest things about mindfulness is actually practicing it…consistently.
And, yet, mindfulness can be the very thing that helps us set appropriate goals for ourselves – even the goal of practicing mindfulness. Before we move on, let’s first define what a SMART goal is.
What Is A SMART Goal?
SMART goals are:
- Specific: What action will you take to meet your goal?
- Measurable: How will you measure the goal?
- Achievable: Is the goal doable?
- Relevant: Why are you pursuing the goal in the first place?
- Time-bound: What’s the time frame for achieving your goal?
Mindfulness and SMART Goals
When we invite mindfulness into the process of goal setting we become aware of how it actually feels to have set the goal in the first place. We can turn our attention inward and notice whether our goal of running for an hour a day feels challenging or punitive. We also can dispassionately observe our behavior. Do we lace up our shoes and bound out the door with the enthusiasm of a Boston marathoner? Or do we procrastinate by cleaning the kitchen grout with a toothbrush before putting on our Nikes?
Goals, while an essential element of behavior change, can send us into convulsions of self-criticism when we set ones that so audacious that we fail to live up to them. Here, too, a bit of mindful self-compassion can help.
One of the kindest things we might consider doing for ourselves as we approach the daunting task of eating less Cookies and Cream Haagen Daz or beginning something entirely new such as a mindfulness meditation practice is to take the smallest step possible in the direction of our goal.
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“Radical change is like charging up a steep hill-you may run out of wind before you reach the crest, or the thought of all the work ahead makes you give up no sooner than you’ve begun,” writes Dr. Robert Maurer, a faculty member with UCLA’s School of Medicine and author of “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.”
Maurer argues that our brains hate change and, in fact, feel threatened by it. Setting big goals such as running an hour every day can block rather than pave the way to good habits.
When Setting Your Goals, Start Small
On the other hand, making a small commitment to change –practicing mindfulness for just five minutes a day, for example – turns off the brain’s fight-or-flight response and lowers resistance.
What’s more, repeatedly taking small steps toward change creates new connections between neurons to support the new habit. Over time, small actions done consistently add up to big changes.
Let’s take our small goal of practicing mindfulness meditation for five minutes each day and put it to the SMART test.
It’s specific. It’s measurable. We can set a five-minute timer when we practice. It’s doable. Even the most stressed among us can hopefully find five minutes a day to be mindful. It’s relevant if you’re intention is to improve your overall health as research shows mindfulness reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and boosts happiness. And, by giving ourselves an extra challenge of practicing for five minutes for 30 consecutive days, it’s time-bound.
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Voila! Who knew it was so easy to begin and keep the good habit of practicing mindfulness? Of course, being mindful doesn’t end there. As you go for a run, leave the Haagen Daz in the grocery store freezer section, or practice mindfulness, check-in with yourself. Notice how you feel as you move toward your chosen goal. Over time, do you feel buoyed by your progress or does making the effort toward your goal feel as burdensome as doing your taxes? If so, be kind to yourself and remember to think small and be SMART.
Written by eM Life Teacher Kelly Barron.