This post originally appeared on OMEGA
As it turns out, that’s one of the things meditation teaches us.
It’s also one of the hardest to learn.
When I sat down to meditate this morning, relaxing a little more with each exhale, my concerns drifted away. My mind was truly empty of everything that had concerned it before I started meditating. Everything except the flow of my breath. My body felt blissful, and I was at peace.
For about four seconds.
That’s how long it takes to take one breath. And within one breath, thoughts came flooding in. I felt an itch on my face and wanted to scratch it. A great title for my next book popped into my head, and I wanted to write it down before I forgot it. I thought of at least four phone calls I wanted to make and one difficult conversation I was going to have later that day. I became anxious, knowing I only had a few hours of writing time. What was I doing just sitting here? I wanted to open my eyes and look at how much time was left on my countdown timer. I heard my kids fighting in the other room and wanted to intervene.
Here’s the key though: I wanted to do all those things, but I didn’t do them. Instead, every time I had one of those thoughts, I brought my attention back to my breath.
Because, while four seconds is all it takes to lose focus, that’s all it takes to regain focus, too. Four seconds—one breath—is all it takes to stop yourself from a counterproductive knee-jerk reaction.
And four seconds is all it takes to make a more intentional, more strategic choice that’s more likely to get you where you want to go.
Sometimes, not following through on something you want to do is a problem, like not writing that proposal you’ve been procrastinating on or not having that difficult conversation you’ve been avoiding.
But other times, the problem is that you do follow through on something you don’t want to do, like speaking instead of listening or playing politics instead of rising above them.
Meditation teaches us to resist the urge of that counterproductive follow-through.
[It’s] easier and more reliable to create an environment that supports your goals than it is to depend on willpower, but sometimes you do need to rely on plain, old-fashioned, self-control.
For example, self-control is useful when an employee makes a mistake and you want to yell at him even though you know that it’s better—for him and for the morale of the group—to ask some questions and discuss it gently and rationally. Or when you want to blurt something out in a meeting but know you’d be better off listening. Or when you want to buy or sell a stock based on your emotions even though the fundamentals and your research suggest a different action. Or when you want to check email every three minutes instead of focusing on the task at hand.
Each time you meditate, you will be proving to yourself that temptation is only a suggestion. You are in control.
Does that mean you never follow an urge? Of course not.
Urges hold useful information. If you’re hungry, it may be a good indication that you need to eat. But it also may be an indication that you’re bored or struggling with a difficult piece of work.
Meditation gives you practice having power over your urges so you can make intentional choices about which to follow and which to let pass.
So how do you do it? If you’re just starting, keep it very simple.
Sit with your back straight enough that your breathing is comfortable—on a chair or a cushion on the floor—and set a timer for however many minutes you want to meditate. Once you start the timer, close your eyes, relax, and don’t move except to breathe, until the timer goes off. Focus on your breath going in and out. Every time you have a thought or an urge, notice it and bring yourself back to your breath.
That’s it. Simple but challenging. Try it—today—for five minutes. And then try it again tomorrow.
And if you don’t have five minutes? Then try it for four seconds.