Ten Steps to Mindfulness

A few weeks ago, I received a wonderful, long, and very personal email from a reader. This reader told many stories about their life and made the astute observation that frugality and personal finance success are simply aspects of being more mindful in one’s everyday life.

The reader’s question, in the end, had to do with cultivating mindfulness. Noting that I was not very mindful in my life several years ago, the reader wanted to know what exactly I had done to make that change.

I would really love to share this reader’s email with you, but it was so tied with personal material from the reader that the reader specifically requested that I not share it.

However, I can certainly share my thoughts on the central question. How does one become more mindful in one’s day-to-day life?

First, let’s step back and look at what mindfulness means, at least in my eyes.

What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness means being aware of the short-term and long-term effects of your everyday choices and being able to make decisions that balance those effects. That means you have to be focused on the moment at hand.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m thirsty. We’re on a long road trip and I’m feeling a little drowsy, too. We stop for gas at a gas station, so I head inside looking for a beverage, since our cooler is empty.

If I’m not mindful, I’d just glance for the first high-energy drink, buy it regardless of the cost, and happily head out to the vehicle. It’s tasty, it’ll give me an energy boost, it’ll quench my thirst – why not?

There are a lot of factors involved, though. Is it healthy? Is the package just going to get tossed in a trash bin? What does it cost? Will I actually feel better after consuming it or just get jittery? Do I respect the company that makes the product? Am I setting a good parental example?

If I’m mindful, I’ll look for a fresh piece of fruit and then also ask about filling up my water bottle instead of getting an energy drink. It’s better for me. It’s likely cheaper. There’s no trash to be concerned with. It’s likely to give me good lasting energy rather than a rush.

Mindfulness means being able to make a more nuanced decision as often as possible, resulting in better outcomes for your life (and for others). Financial improvement is simply one aspect of this.

Ten Steps to Improved Mindfulness from My Own Experience
There are some good tactics that anyone can apply to improve their mindfulness. Here are ten that I use all the time in my own life.

1. Face the fact that you mess up sometimes.
No one is perfect. You are going to make some good decisions, but you’re going to make some bad ones, too. Don’t let the mistakes grind you down. Your focus shouldn’t be to make every decision perfectly, but to increase the proportion of good decisions.

Don’t beat yourself up over the mistakes. Mistakes are part of learning. They show us the path to a better way. If you make a mistake, just ask yourself why you made it and think about how you can reverse or correct that reason.

2. Think about specific situations outside of their normal context.
When I’m sitting at the doctor’s office or I’m sitting at a stoplight, I’ll think about my life. Often, that means thinking through situations that occur regularly. I’ll actually think through the process of going to the gas station for a beverage, as mentioned above, and I’ll reflect carefully on making the right decision.

For me, this makes it much easier to be mindful and make better decisions when those situations actually occur in my life. If I’ve already thought about some of the elements of the decision I’ll make at a particular moment, actually making the right choice in that moment becomes easier. It’s preparation for mindfulness.

3. Keep a journal.
I’ve found that spending a little bit of time reflecting on my day helps me greatly in terms of keeping my mind focused on what really matters in the short term and in the long term. I really feel connected with what I want to achieve very soon and with what I want over the course of my life.

My journal entries usually revolve around whatever is weighing the heaviest on my mind. I try to throw down all of my thoughts on the subject, then, as I read through those thoughts, I try to put myself into the situation I’m describing and focus on what I most need to do to make the situation turn out well. It’s like a deeper version of the forethought I mentioned above. Forethought strongly encourages mindfulness for me.

4. When you’re unsure, research it.
What do you do if you’re reflecting on a situation and you’re unsure what the right choice is? Step back and research it. Don’t be afraid to seek out more information on your situation – after all, you are not perfect and you do not have all of the answers.

For example, if I’m asking myself what the true healthy choice is in a given situation, I don’t just trust my intuition on it. I research it and find out what the true correct answer is, and then I add that information to my visualization of the situation.

5. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
It’s incredibly easy to misunderstand social situations – at least, it is for me. I often have a hard time comprehending what other people are thinking and why they are doing what they’re doing, which causes me to make my own mistakes in social situations.

For me, the most powerful way to improve my mindfulness in social situations is to try to put myself into the other person’s shoes. What would they be feeling or thinking in order to respond the way they did? What can I do to interact well with the way they’re feeling or thinking?

Practicing this regularly makes it become natural in social situations, and makes them much easier to navigate as well.

6. Don’t put yourself in decision-making situations when you’re not thinking well.
If you’re hungry, don’t go to the grocery store. If you’re tired, don’t put yourself in places where you’re making crucial decisions. If you’re upset, don’t be around the source of the anger.

When your emotions and feelings are out of whack, it is incredibly hard to be mindful. Try to recognize when you’re not in the best position to handle a situation and then avoid or defer that situation.

7. Get adequate sleep.
For me, this is perhaps the biggest key to mindfulness. I am far more mindful when I am adequately rested. When I feel tired, my mind wanders and I find myself making poor decisions.

Whenever I’m tired, I generally try to minimize situations where I’m going to be making lots of decisions and I make sure to get a strong night of sleep that night. You make your best decisions when rested, as it’s much easier to focus on the moment.

8. Understand what you really value.
What do you care about? Often, a major challenge to mindfulness is the conflicting values between what you internally feel and what others around you feel (and what they expect you to feel).

Understand what you want and care about. When you’re in a situation where you’re trying to balance your own internal feelings against what you think others want and expect from you, it becomes incredibly difficult to focus on the moment and make a good decision. You only need one voice inside of you.

9. Let yourself wander when it’s safe.
It is very difficult to be mindful all the time. I certainly need breaks from it in which I give my attention some time to wander and recharge.

Make sure that before you’re going to be in a situation where you have to (or want to) be mindful, you give your focus a chance to rest. Engage in something where you don’t have to focus. For me, it’s usually closing my eyes and listening to music for a while.

10. Never forget that the perfect is the enemy of the good.
This ties into the first entry on this list. It’s so easy to give up on a big goal when you hit your first roadblock and find yourself not doing as well as you’d hoped.

The truth is that success isn’t measured by perfection. It’s measured by the push to improve. Every day, expect that you’ll make mistakes, but also expect that you’ll evaluate them and learn from them. If you do that as a matter of routine, success will come.

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