I have to admit it: the other day, I got suckered into clicking on a listicle (or “list article”) called something like, “Five Easy Steps to Be More Mindful.”
It was a terrible article. Not because the steps were bad, but because they were not easy. They were things like, “Have good habits” and “Meditate” and “Learn how to let go.”
These are worthy goals, but not actually easy ones, other than meditating, and, well, the way meditation gets described to people can make it sound a lot harder than it is, and it was definitely described in an intimidating way in this listicle!
Meh. “I can do better,” I said to myself.
So here are my five (somewhat tongue in cheek) steps for being more mindful:
1. Take a breath.
Breathe in and downward so that your belly button moves. Then breathe out. Nothing fancy is required, although there are a ton of ways you can get fancier if you feel like it.
Deep breathing (that is, breathing downward so your belly button moves) happens to tell your vagus nerve, which is in charge of your fight or flight reflex, that now is not the time to fight or flight–now is the time to chill out and invoke healing responses instead.
(If you’re not used to deep breathing, you might feel dizzy or completely exhausted after a few of these, so please be careful.)
2. Do a crappy job.
When you’re stuck, give yourself permission to do the bare minimum on any given task or project.
Once you’re started, you can better decide how much energy you actually have for the project, and you can decide to put in more effort. But until you get started, you may have only a rising sense of dread that you must be perfect at what you do, or at least the greatest at it ever, and that, simultaneously, you can’t.
I call these can’t do-must do loops.
As the old saying goes, “Time to do something…even if it’s wrong.”
3. Complain to yourself.
A lot of us have inner monologues that are all about us rehearsing a fantasy conversation with another person, usually to complain about something they did, or to figure out how to offset their objections and criticism.
You can’t “win” these conversations. The only person you can defeat is yourself–by wasting time and stressing yourself out.
Sometimes it’s necessary to rehearse what you’re going to say to someone else. In that case, it’s better to write down what you want to say. Your brain can’t always hold an entire argument in one piece, and what you can end up doing is trying to memorize a speech without notes–starting over and over again, trying to perfect something that you can’t remember all the way through. It’s an endless cycle, but one you can break by jotting down a paragraph or two.
Most of the time, though, it’s not necessary to have these inner conversations, or even a good idea.
The problem is the word “you.”
When you adress someone directly in your head with “you,” then you are allowing that person to cross your boundaries.
The inside of your head should be a private place, where your own perceptions, opinions, and emotions are more important to you than anyone else’s.
Having the privacy to think what you want without being nagged by “other people” is great. I highly recommend it, although I don’t always achieve it.
How do you stop doing it, though?
Complain to yourself instead of to imagined “other people.”
Instead of saying, “I am angry at you for doing x,” say, “I am angry at that person for doing x.”
Just remove the word you.
Changing an internal monologue from the second person (you) to third person (them) sets a boundary: You get to control the inside of your skull; the other person doesn’t.
(Also, yes, I know that I’m addressing you all over this article. Using you in an article makes it more personal to the reader–it’s a copywriting tactic, and admittedly a little manipulative. Watch for the word you in ads! It’s all over the place.)
4. Let yourself be bored sometimes.
It’s funny. The core of meditation is simple: deep breathing plus allowing yourself to be bored. And yet over time it works wonders.
You don’t have to meditate in order to be bored, though: you just have to not be enteretained or busy.
Don’t play games, don’t read, don’t scroll through social media, don’t watch TV, don’t call up an old friend to talk (although that is great). Don’t go for a walk, don’t exercise, don’t listen to podcasts or read blogs, don’t wash the dishes, don’t do crafts, don’t answer emails.
Just be bored.
Boredom is a reset button for your brain; it is fiber for the soul. It generates creative ideas, untangles other people’s drama, and opens you up to the world around you. (It can be a little unsettling, though, if you’ve been “forgetting” things you really need to deal with.)
If you can handle being bored, you can handle a lot.
5. Tell yourself you’re making a clean place for a new mess.
Finally, don’t focus on the endless amount of work there is to accomplish. Instead, tell yourself that you’re making a clean place for a new mess.
There is nothing worse than an old mess compounding a new one. Think back to the times when you’ve let problems pile up, and how hard it was to resolve them all at the same time.
Low-level maintenance tasks, like cleaning out your inbox, flossing, or just not indulging in bad habits, aren’t romantic or exciting. It’s hard to be motivated, especially when it seems like everything is screwed up again five minutes later.
It’s tempting to say, “I know I can’t succeed. So I shouldn’t even try.”
But life isn’t about instant, overnight success.
It’s mostly just about failing a little less than you could have, on a moment-by-moment basis. Stuff will go wrong, and go wrong again, and again, and again.
A lot of “good luck” is making slightly fewer mistakes than everyone else.
So don’t aim for perfection.
Just aim for being a little less spun up about things on a daily basis.
That is what mindfulness is about.