January Challenge: A Month of Meditation

by Cody on 2023-02-03 filed under experiments

I'm making 2023 my year of experiments. I'll pick some worthwhile habit to try to build each month, I'll try hard to do it every day, then I'll evalute how it works right here. For January, I chose meditation. I conservatively estimate I've tried and failed to meditate consistently a few hundred times. The benefits sound life-changing, and the first couple of days are ok, then I just slowly stop and watch Frasier reruns instead. If I do it consistently for a month straight, will anything change?

A Month of Meditation

Why start this series with meditation? Well, I like the idea of it in the abstract. I want to be able to decouple myself from emotions and distractions throughout the day, to be able to focus on what matters. When my kids look back on their childhood, I want them to remember a calm, present, and patient parent, not this irritable dude who self medicated via Reddit. According to the folks at the Mayo Clinic, meditation lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and improves sleep quality. Sounds good!

Why Now?

Here's the thing: I've known all these benefits for a long time. You probably have too. It's honestly been years of me wanting to build these qualities within myself. Have I succeeded? Not exactly. I have succeeded in paying for Headspace every year (good app, shout out to Andy the world's most chill human) and using it here and there. But it just does not stick. I forget to do it, or I get busy and decide not to do it, or I just drop it entirely during a time of stress. I don't think that's how it's supposed to work.

The Experiment

Listen, we are scientific here. This is the Internet, after all, where everyone knows what they're talking about and always tells the truth. So, let's frame this as a proper experiment with a hypothesis, data, and everything.

This month's hypothesis: if I build the habit of daily meditation, I will experience greater mindfulness and lower blood pressure + resting heart rate.

How Does It Work?

It's easy to meditate. Just sit down and breathe. If you get distracted, let the distraction pass and start breathing again.

It's hard to meditate every day. You have work stuff, life stuff, stuff you have to watch on Netflix. How do you make it stick, without just white-knuckling your way through it for 31 days straight?

I find the practice of habit stacking to be very effective in building a habit. To stack habits, you take the new habit you're trying to build and you do it immediately before / after a habit you already have. For example, when I was trying to get into the habit of flossing every night, I started doing it right before brushing my teeth which I already did every night. My bathroom drawers are now littered with plastic flosser things, which is how you know this works.

I decided to stack meditation with another daily habit: putting my twins to bed. This is a stressful activity. Police departments probably train their hostage negotiators by putting twin 7-year olds to bed. It's also a trigger for distraction. There were plenty of nights where I'd finally get them to bed, I'd start looking at my phone afterwards, then realize I've been reading the history of sandwiches for 60 minutes. That's a terrible way to spend the limited amount of free time I have, so I decided I'd meditate for 10 minutes in Headspace as soon as I got them down.

What Happened?

First, I did meditate every day. Habit stacking worked. More often than not, I put the twins to bed, I meditated, then I went right into a useful part of my evening. This whole process was a little more challenging when we deviated from our usual schedule like on a weekend road trip. Then, I just started Headspace's Wind Down and cranked the volume up for everyone. Who wouldn't want to participate in mandatory family meditation in a random hotel room? This actually worked great and put my oldest son right to sleep.

Did I see the health benefits, like lower blood pressure and heart rate? Before I launch into this, let me clarify: there are some serious correlation vs. causation questions here. This is all highly anecdotal and a sample size of 1. You can't present this blog post as a scholarly reference on cardiovascular health, as tempting as that might be.

Enough preamble: what happened? I tried to be systematic. I bought a blood pressure monitor off Amazon to actually measure progress here. Ten random days throughout January, I measured my blood pressure and pulse before, then after, meditation. On 70% of these days, my blood pressure or pulse decreased after meditation. The long term trends are far more interesting. When I look at my starting measurements on the first day vs. my ending measurements on the last day, systolic blood pressure decreased by -6.7%, diastolic decreased by -9.1%, and my resting pulse decreased by -5%. That's a lot, considering all I did was sit on the floor and breathe! The health benefits exceeded my expectations.

Did I feel calmer or more mindful? That's hard to say conclusively, but I did see signs of progress. First, I was more likely to be productive following meditation, compared to my usual nightly doomscrolling. Good! Second, there were handful of times where I observed that "Hey, I'm angry right now" and calmed myself down, rather than just act and make things worse. Also good! Finally, I felt like I handled conflict a little more productively, both at work and at home. But on the whole, there were no incredible transformations here, and precisely zero people saw my awesome mindfulness and assumed I was a mystical guru. I was maybe 6.7% calmer, similar to my blood pressure findings. Again, that's pretty good, considering all I did was sit on the floor and breathe.

Keep It or Kick It?

Discerning readers will notice I keep bolding the good stuff. That means I'll keep the habit. It's also interesting observe that I made it through January and just kept meditating every day, before I wrote this post and made an explicit decision on it.

What's Next?

For February, I'm going to to try something that's honestly 1000x harder and more unpleasant: tracking our expenses. I've been content to light a small pile of money on fire each month if it meant I didn't have to look at my credit card bills. But if I build the habit of looking at these expenses, I hope to save money and automate a lot of the financial toil. That's the idea at least, see you in a month!