When I first started creating habits, I set up rewards for myself: treats, massages, buying myself books. These rewards were great, but honestly, I didn’t feel that motivated by them. I found that they were too far away from the actual habit, and not directly linked in my mind to doing the habit.
So I looked for other ways to reward myself, from social accountability to socializing with others. Those worked really well.
Then I hit on something that was far more effective: enjoying the task itself.
If I could go for a run and enjoy the run, the task became the reward! What a breakthrough this was for me. The task started to have positive feedback built in.
This, of course, is easier said than done. How do you enjoy something that you don’t normally enjoy? You can’t necessarily turn a painful task into a joyful one, can you?
I found that I could, if I kept an open mind about it.
I found that I could enjoy the unenjoyable habits, if I could learn to appreciate the habit and let go of wishing it were different.
I found that the secret that unlocked all of this was mindfulness.
Shining some mindfulness
I would go out for a run and practice mindfulness — pay attention to my body and my breath as I ran, pay attention to the ground beneath my feet, the wind rushing past my bald head, the light through the leaves, the beauty of the moment. Sure, I was uncomfortable, but with mindfulness I could see my mind trying to run from the discomfort, and instead, loosen up and allow myself to feel the discomfort. This discomfort, once I actually paid close attention to it, wasn’t so bad! I could even find things in the uncomfortable moment that I could appreciate.
So the mindfulness became a powerful tool for shining a spotlight on what was going on: paying attention, seeing the beauty of the moment, loosening up with my discomfort, accepting it, and appreciating everything I could.
I think of this as the spotlight of mindfulness, putting some light on the darkness of what we usually don’t see. We often are unaware of our urges, our shying away from discomfort, our negative thoughts or things that we aren’t appreciating. Having a spotlight of mindfulness brings all of those out into the light.
How do we develop this spotlight? This is my process: instead of thinking of other things as I run (or do any kind of activity), I turn my attention to my breath. I try to pay attention to it, feel the qualities of it, follow it as it comes in and goes out.
Then I turn my attention to my body and feel what’s going on with it, what sensations I can notice. I scan my body from toes to head, though in the process of this, my mind might start to wander. When I notice this, I turn the spotlight of my attention to my thoughts and see that they want to move away from the present moment to think about something else. Often this is because the present moment is uncomfortable or in some way different from what I want.
That’s when I turn the spotlight of mindfulness onto my discomfort and the way I wish this moment were. I think about my ideals, the Mind Movie that I’ve been playing, and I think about how it’s causing me to not enjoy the current moment.
Then I turn back to the current moment, perhaps to my breath and body again, or maybe to my surroundings. I’ve found that these things aren’t different: the breath, the body, the surroundings are all sensations, all things to notice. My feelings and thoughts are also sensations. So I just turn the spotlight on all of these sensations.
Finally, I start to appreciate everything that the spotlight shines on: my breath, how wonderful it is! How lucky I am to have it! My body, what a great thing, flab and warts and hairs and all! How lucky I am to have this body to experience this world of wonders. The things around me: how awe-inspiring! What kind of a miracle is a leaf, or a field, or a bird? I’m overwhelmed by the joy of being alive.
The spotlight of mindfulness can be quite an experience, if you pay attention.
The positive feedback of mindfulness
This miraculous spotlight helps us to find the intrinsic reward of doing the habit. If you can be mindful, and appreciate the moment as you do the habit, you can enjoy the activity more. You can enjoy yourself as you do the activity.
Going for a run becomes a mindful break from the chaos of the world. Writing can become an enjoyable mindful practice. Even healthy eating can be a pleasurable, mindful eating exercise.
When you enjoy the activity mindfully, there is positive feedback as you do the habit. It’s not something that comes later; it happens immediately and is inextricably tied to the habit itself.
And so mindfulness becomes a way of setting up a positive feedback loop.
Mission: Do the habit again, mindfully
Today, for the two minutes or so that you do your habit, practice the spotlight of mindfulness. Turn the spotlight on your breath, then your body, then your surroundings, then all the other sensations associated with the movements of doing the activity. Appreciate everything about doing the habit that you can. Enjoy those wonderful things about the habit so that the habit itself becomes your reward.