Meditation loves metrics.

I love introducing people to meditation, and helping them get their own personal practice off the ground.  Yesterday I received this message and it was so great — it’s a question that comes up a lot when you start meditating — I asked and got the ok to share it here:

I wanted to reach out and say thank you for the advice and link to some of your material, I have been working to incorporate this every morning before I start my day (either pre-shower or in car before I step into work).

This has helped make some improvements to set my day off right (I am classic ADHD and very busy schedule). Some days it helps more than others, I am just trying to set the habit.

Can you suggest what the next beginner steps would be to do more here? I am assuming just spending more time doing the same exercise. What metrics do you use for a beginner to measure progress?

Before I share my reply, I want to point out that meditation loves metrics.

The essence of meditation and mindfulness is observation.  It’s the spirit of inquiry, with kindness and curiosity, that I love about this work.  It is not about escaping from reality, or living in a fantasy rainbow world.  It’s about being really present with what’s here now.

In other words:  Don’t meditate just because someone says it’s good for you.  Find out for yourself if it really is working for you.

Yes, there’s a lot of science that explains the benefits of meditation, and yes there are a lot of successful and famous people who meditate.

But, really, so what?

The only thing that really matters is whether this practice makes your life better.  If it doesn’t, then spend your time doing something else.  You’ve only got one life.  If meditation is not for you right now, it’s not a big deal.  So do ask yourself questions like: What’s this doing for me?  What is the measurable progress?  How do I know if it’s working?

Here’s the response I wrote:

There are a couple of approaches to the metrics / “am I making progress” question.

(1) Before / After

Notice how you feel before you meditate. And then notice how you feel after. Write it down in a log book, spreadsheet, journal — whatever works best for you. The goal is to capture any observed shift. . . can be at physical, emotional, or intellectual levels. Some days there might not be a shift, and that’s ok. What we’re looking for is trend over time.

For one of my students, he noticed that 5 mins of meditation almost always left him feeling more calm. So guess what? He started meditating whenever he knew he had a stressful situation coming up: job interview, driving in rush hour traffic, etc. For him, this insight made meditation “the ace in my pocket.” Stressful situations didn’t stress him out as much. He felt more at ease, and more confident.

(2) Use Existing Productivity Metrics

One client was already tracking his productivity when he came to me for meditation guidance.  He noticed that when he added meditation to his day, his productivity increased. He tracked this over time and also noticed that he felt more focused and less distracted. So if you’re already tracking your productivity, notice if anything changes. He is also ADHD and found that meditation made a noteworthy improvement in his ability to be naturally focused and less distracted.

(3) Measure What You’re Curious About

A friend of mine is very analytical, so when she started meditating she created a spreadsheet with (I think) 14 different metrics — productivity, sleep, eating, distractibility, etc. She measured what she cared about, and was curious to know if meditation had an effect on those particular things. She found greater productivity and ability to focus. I don’t know all the other findings — but I loved her approach of saying, “I wonder if meditation affects X” and then measuring it.

(4) Heart Rate & Blood Pressure

If you already have a device that tracks heart rate (I think FitBit does this) then it’s an easy one to measure. Take your heart rate before and after meditation. See what happens over time. Same with blood pressure. A friend works at a company that introduced a meditation program. They tracked heart rate, blood pressure, perceived stress and perceived happiness. Heart rate, blood pressure, and perceived stress declined. . . perceived happiness increased!

Bonus Tip:  Meditating by Placing Attention on Sound

If you start feeling bored or distracted with the meditation you’re currently doing, no worries. One way to change it up is to sit with eyes closed for a set period of time (5-10 mins to start) and listen to all the sounds you can hear. Try to identify just one sound at a time. Then focus on one sound. . . open your awareness to another sound. . . and then another. It helps to gather your attention and cultivate focus. Make sure your face stays relaxed. People have a tendency to squinch up their eyebrows on this one because they try so hard! Be relaxed and curious with your inquiry.

If you’re starting a meditation practice, maybe this will help.  You can email me if you have questions.  I’ll answer some of them here, so that others can benefit as well.

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