Two years ago, as a personal experiment, I printed a calendar: one page with three months on it. This was to be my “calendar chain” for meditation. And since September 4th, 2015, I have missed just seven days of meditation, and I have spent over 10,000 minutes meditating.*
The weird thing is, I thought the whole idea of a calendar chain was stupid. The concept sounded cheesy, lame, and unnecessary. I was sure it wasn’t for me, and I did not believe it would work.
But I was desperate.
My mind was, to put it mildly, a mess. I had trouble focusing, my emotions were volatile, and anxiety was ever present.
I knew that meditation could help. The research certainly made that clear, and I had tried it enough times to have tasted the benefits. But despite knowing that I should be meditating, I could only get myself to do it sporadically. I would set the intention of creating a regular, daily practice, but I couldn’t get the habit to stick. I would avoid it, make excuses, or simply forget.
In the meantime, I was also studying behavioral change. And one technique that kept coming up over and over again was the calendar chain.
The idea is to print out a calendar and set a daily minimum target for some new behavior – in my case, three minutes of breathing meditation. Then, for any day that you hit that minimum target, you put an X in the box on the calendar. If you start to build up a streak of several days in a row, you’ll see a chain of X’s on the calendar, and you won’t want to break the chain. In theory, this should encourage you be consistent about your new behavior, helping it become an ingrained habit.
I was stunned by how well it worked. I didn’t miss a single day until March 19th, 2016, over six months later. And remember, I thought the notion of a calendar chain was absurd. Luckily, some part of me was open to personal experimentation. I guess I figured that it couldn’t hurt to try. And I’m sure glad I did.
As the months went by, I increased my daily minimum from three minutes to five, and then from five minutes to seven, and then from seven minutes to ten. In July of 2016, I added a second type of meditation to my daily minimum and tracked that by using a green Sharpie to fill in the boxes.
Meditation is akin to exercising and eating vegetables: It’s a healthy thing to do, but you don’t see big benefits immediately. True, I felt that I generally had better days when I meditated in the mornings, but I didn’t notice any radical change for quite some time.
But I was changing, slowly and steadily. As I approached the one-year mark, I realized that my brain had improved dramatically. I was much better at focusing and staying present, I was far better at regulating my emotions and detaching from unhelpful thoughts, and the anxiety that had permeated my life for years was now mostly absent. I also noticed that I was more patient, I found it easier to make good choices, and I was happier with my life overall.
Now, two years into my meditation practice, it’s clear that brain is significantly stronger and healthier. I’m a much more resilient person, I have far greater control over myself, and I have a larger capacity for compassion.
Why it Worked
The topic of why meditation helps and how to do it will have to be saved for another day. For now, let’s explore why the calendar chain tool worked so well. Bear in mind that you could use it for any new behavior you’d like start, such as writing, exercising, or eating salads.
For starters, the calendar chain simply serves as a reminder. It sits on my desk, so I see it every day. That way, if I don’t meditate, then it wasn’t because I forgot; it was a choice. Legitimate forgetting is off the table, and convenient “forgetting” is also no longer an option: I can’t lie to myself and pretend I forgot.
The calendar chain also serves a concrete “implementation intention” because it is a pen-and-paper expression of my goal. You’re much more likely to achieve a goal if you write it down and set a specific target.
And lastly, it creates an opportunity to praise myself for engaging with the process of becoming better. Every time I put an X in today’s box, I’m giving myself a little pat on the back for doing what I committed to doing. I know that when I meditate, I’m doing my future selves a favor, and it’s nice to have a record of all that self-kindness.
The calendar chain tool is a fantastic way to keep your eyes on the process and demonstrate to yourself that you’re living up to your chosen, process-based identity. It won’t make change easy, but it might make it less difficult. You’ll never know until you try.**
*Note: 10,000 minutes is just 1/60th of the way to 10,000 hours. I am not a meditation guru.
**To get yourself a calendar, type “printable calendar (and the three months you’d like)” into Google Images. For example, if you’re going to start a calendar chain this month, you would search for “printable calendar September October November 2017.” But don’t use the quotations in your search because that will limit the results.
Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/en/chain-link-metal-strong-connect-690088/. Text added.
Calendar Chain Pics: Loper, Chris.