“Mindfulness” is quite the buzzword these days. Spiritual teachers, psychologists, celebrities and health professionals are heralding the benefits of mindful practices such as yoga and meditation. And there’s a growing body of research to back up the idea that these positive, life-affirming practices can reduce stress, relieve pain and improve our health and well-being.
But what does it actually mean to live mindfully? This definition sums it up well:
In theory, this sounds simple. In practice, it can be quite challenging to do. Our modern lives have become chaotic, fast-paced, and filled to the brim with responsibilities and distractions galore. Most of us have got a ton of different things competing for our time and attention to the point where it often gets overwhelming. And on top of all that, we constantly receive societal messaging telling us that we need to have more, do more and be more — that we aren’t good enough as we are. If we’re not careful, we can get wrapped up in trying to compensate by overstuffing our social calendars and working our butts off until we’re completely fried, exhausted and burnt-out.
These reasons are precisely why mindfulness is such an essential discipline for our times. I’ve read that if we want to be happy in life, and if we truly want to make the most of each day, the key is not doing more; it’s doing less. Not speeding up, but slowing down. It may sound counterintuitive at first, but the truth is that just as we need to recharge our bodies with sleep, we must rejuvenate our minds and souls with moments of stillness and quiet. We need time and space to re-center, to gain clarity and perspective on our lives and to make intentional choices that align with our deepest values.
But what are we to do when time feels like it’s in such short supply? That’s where we may need to get a little creative. The good news is that you don’t have to have tons of free time to start practicing mindfulness. You can practice in the small spaces and gaps between the various activities of your day — even if it’s just a few minutes here and there. Even those little snippets of time count. According to Verywell Mind, practicing meditation for just five minutes a day can be beneficial. Meditating in short bursts is certainly better than not practicing at all because, like a muscle, the ability to be mindful becomes stronger through regular use. And the length of time you spend practicing matters less than how consistent you are at it. Spending just a few short minutes each day on mindfulness techniques will help put you on the path towards a more mindful life.
With all that in mind, here are eight of my favorite ideas for you to try:
1. Stop and breathe. Bringing awareness to your breath is one of the simplest and most effective techniques for coming back into the present moment. Feeling the physical sensations of your chest and abdomen rising and falling, and the air flowing in and out of your body, redirects your focus to your immediate experience. Ancient yogis believed that pranayama, or breathing exercises, were ways to regulate physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy, which is why breathwork is still such a central part of yoga practice today. And even if yoga doesn’t happen to be your jam, you can still benefit from incorporating a little mindful breathing into your day.
Try this exercise for starters: close your eyes, inhale slowly for four seconds, then slowly exhale for four seconds. For a relaxing effect, you can gradually increase the length of the exhale to six, then eight seconds (while keeping the inhale at four seconds). Lengthening your exhalation will actually stimulate your vagus nerve and deactivate the “fight-or-flight” stress response. If you’re having a stressful day, there aren’t many quicker ways to take the edge off than to take a pause, turn your attention inward and just breathe.
2. Play the 5-4-3-2-1 game to tune into your senses. This is a tool I learned from my former therapist to manage my anxiety. It’s especially useful for moments when you feel overwhelmed and a little out-of-control, but you can use it at any time when you’re starting to feel stressed. The game uses your five senses to immediately draw you back into the present. Here’s how to play:
- First, find five things that you can see around you.These things can be anything–a notebook, a photo hanging on the wall, or a cloud in the sky, perhaps.
- Now, notice four things that you can feel with your touch. Maybe it’s the feeling of your shirt against your skin, the soles of your feet against the floor, or a breeze moving through your hair.
- Take note of three things that you hear. Is it the sound of cars in the distance? The hum of a refrigerator? The ticking of a clock?
- Identify two things that you can smell–perhaps the smell of food cooking for breakfast, or the aroma of the earth just after a rainstorm.
- Pay attention to one thing you taste–most likely lingering notes of whatever you last ate.
The purpose of this exercise is to focus your attention on the myriad of sensations that are all around you–things we often don’t notice because we’re preoccupied with something else. Some of these sensations might be immediately obvious, while others can be quite subtle. Either way, paying attention to these small details helps you become more present in the moment and more aware of how rich and multilayered our consciousness can be.
3. Set alerts on your phone to remind you to take a break. I have a good friend who does this. My favorite alert of hers is the one that tells her to go outside at twilight so she can watch the sunset. You can time your alerts around events like sunsets, but even if the alerts are just set at regular intervals throughout the day, they are a good reminder to take a few minutes to rest and decompress.
4. Practice single-tasking. Some of us take pride in our ability to focus on many different things at once, but the truth is, our human brains don’t actually do multitasking all that well. We can pay attention to multiple tasks simultaneously, but we can only give each of them a fraction of our focus and effort.
“Single-tasking” results in less residual mental clutter — it’s more efficient (and less stressful) to do only one task at a time and complete it before moving onto something else. So, when doing an item on your to-do list, see how it feels to set aside everything else for a few minutes and focus all your attention on that one thing. There is a Zen proverb that says, “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” No matter how mundane the task is, give it your full, undivided attention. If it’s something you’ve done a thousand times before — and especially if it’s something you don’t really enjoy — try using your senses to pick up on a new dimension of the experience that you’ve never noticed before. Experiment with different ways of doing it, if you like. But regardless, do nothing else until you’re finished with that task. When you focus only on one thing at a time, you greatly enhance the quality of effort, attention and intention that go into everything you do.
5. Get out of your head and into your body. If you’re prone to overthinking — and so many of us are — you can use physical movement to pull yourself back into present-moment awareness. Our minds are great tools when used properly, but sometimes, they’re a little too powerful and they get the better of us. If that sounds like you, a few minutes of activity could be just what you need to pull yourself out of “thinking” mode and into a more clear, centered space. You don’t have to do a full workout; you can go for a short walk or do a few jumping jacks and you’ll still get some of the positive effects of exercise. You could even try a short Qigong routine like this one. Whatever you decide to do, when you take the opportunity to bring awareness into your body, your mind will naturally slow down.
6. Do a mini-meditation. A regular meditation practice can have a profound impact on your mental clarity, ability to regulate your emotions, and your day-to-day stress levels. And there are plenty of meditations that can be done in just a few minutes. There are so many different ways to meditate, but if you’re new to it or could use some guidance, you might want to try a meditation app such as Headspace. These apps have a huge assortment of short, guided meditations to choose from, and some of them can be completed in as little as three minutes.
7. Go outside. I can’t stress enough how beneficial it is just to get outdoors for some fresh air. As I mentioned earlier, going for a walk is a great way to center yourself, but even sitting outside for a few minutes can do wonders for your state of mind. According to Mental Floss, being outside can boost your energy, improve mood and increase focus and creativity. The natural aromas of flowers, grass and trees are a treat for the senses and can give you a lift when you need one.
8. Spend a few minutes being bored. We spend most of our lives running from boredom, don’t we? Honestly, even though it makes us miserable to be crazy-busy, constantly overwhelmed and scrambling around the clock to get things done — I have a theory that a lot of us would rather live that way than be bored. But what’s so wrong with boredom, really? Is it that bad? Or have we simply been so conditioned to need the never-ending excitement of stuff happening all the time?
The more we train ourselves to need constant stimulation, the more lost we are without it. But the more we learn to sit with and even embrace boredom, the more adaptable and resilient we become. So, I challenge you to try this: remove all outside noise and stimulation for just a few minutes and do nothing. This may be surprisingly hard to do at first. But, with practice, you’ll become more comfortable being in this quiet space. It might even start to feel peaceful.
What about you? I’d love to hear about your experiences with these and other mindfulness techniques, and where the journey has led you. Feel free to share in the comments below!