When people find out I’m a meditation teacher, one of the first questions they often ask me is, “How long should my meditation sessions be?”
Creating a practice of consistent meditation is important, so it’s critical that you set reasonable goals and try to meditate every day. So what is a “reasonable” goal, and how do you figure out how much sitting time you need to start seeing the benefits of meditation?
Ultimately, this is a question only YOU can answer, because the “right” amount of meditation time varies widely from person to person.
I can give you a few guidelines you can use to set your own meditation goals, though, and give you some things to consider before making your decision.
In a nutshell: When it comes to meditation, consistency is essential, but duration is a matter of personal choice.
If you’ve studied mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), you may have been told that 45 minutes is the perfect length for a meditation session, but 45 minutes is not a magic number. Other teachers (or books) may have told you that you should always shoot for 30 minutes a day – but that’s not the “perfect” number, either.
When you begin to meditate and start to establish a routine of sitting every day, choose an amount of time that feels achievable and realistic for you. Pick an amount of time that you can realistically fit into your schedule every single day (including weekends). It’s far better to meditate every day for 5 minutes than to meditate 45 minutes once a week.
For some of you, 30 minutes a day will be a good fit, and you’ll be able to do that consistently. For others, 10 minutes is the perfect amount of time for a meditation session.
I notice many of my students set idealistic meditation goals that turn out to be way out of reach. They feel like they “should” meditate for 45 minutes a day, so they set that as their target time, then consistently fail to reach that goal because it’s not actually a good fit for them.
When you do that, you’re creating the conditions for feeling a sense of failure and not being able to live up to your ideals. You’ll actually feel bad (and blame yourself) for not being able to make time for what’s truly important to you.
On the other hand, it’s a good idea not to set your goal too low. If you commit to meditating for 2 minutes a couple of times a month, you’re not necessarily going to be challenging yourself, and you’re also not going to establish a regular, consistent meditation practice. Pick an amount of time that feels like it’s a little bit of a stretch for you, but also feels achievable.
Before you decide how long you’d like to meditate, it’s a good idea to remember why you want to make time to sit on a regular basis.
Some of the many benefits of mediation are: stress relief, better sleep, more self-acceptance, and being more present in your daily life. We’ll be discussing these benefits more in a future post, but for now I just want you to think about why you want to meditate. You probably have a specific reason (or reasons) in mind.
Remembering your ultimate goal(s) can help you set an appropriate goal, and stick with that goal more regularly.
Let me show you an example of how this works, from the fitness and nutrition world.
I’m about to turn 38, and I’m suddenly feeling like I need to take better care of my body. I noticed that my heart rate takes a long time to come back to normal, even after minor exertion. I’d like to become more fit, so I’m easing into getting more physical exercise by doing some brisk walking every day.
Right now, taking a walk every day is something I have to consciously think about and make the time to do. That’s because it’s a new habit for me, and I haven’t fully integrated it into my routine.
And because it’s a new habit, sometimes trouble and procrastination can sneak in. That’s why I have to remind myself about my overall goals (and why I want to exercise in the first place).
Today is a busy day. I’m getting on a flight with my partner very early tomorrow morning. It’s lunchtime now, and things are hectic. I still need to pack. There are a couple of things I want to pop out to the shops for. The dishwasher needs emptying, washing needs taking down from the clothesline, and I have a student to see later. My to-do list is packed.
To be honest, I don’t feel like going for a brisk walk today (or even a slow one), despite it being lovely and sunny outside.
My mind is coming up with the same old excuses – I don’t have time today, because I have too much to do. I’ll walk tomorrow. One day off isn’t going to hurt anything.
On a busy day like today, I remind myself that I have a goal to go for one quick walk every single day. I remind myself that it’s important to walk every day – not just the days when I feel like it, or the days when I feel like I can fit it into my schedule.
I want to walk every day so I can establish this new habit and improve my cardiovascular health and general fitness. If I don’t set up this habit, I’m putting myself at increased risk of having a heart attack or a stroke, developing diabetes, and/or becoming obese (with the associated health problems that being overweight can bring).
That’s a pretty compelling reason to go for a walk, right?
So I want you to remember why you want to meditate before you decide on your goal for meditation time. This will inspire you to make consistent meditation a part of your goal, and will help you decide the right length of time – one that is not so long that it’s impossible, but not so short that it doesn’t challenge you.
In time, meditation will be just something you just do – like brushing your teeth, showering, eating and drinking – but in these early days, it’s super important to remember your true motivation, so you can inspire yourself to stick with your new habit.
In the beginning, sustaining a meditation practice is both an art and a discipline. There’s no set formula and no magic numbers, but it’s not something to take casually, either. If you wait until you have time or you “feel like meditating,” you won’t sit very often (if at all).
Setting a daily goal is a great first step to establishing a consistent meditation practice – and consistency is the best thing to shoot for, particularly when you’re just starting out.
You will only make the time to meditate if it’s important to you, so it’s also a good idea to remember why you want to start meditating (or recommit to meditating if you have fallen out of the habit). Ask yourself, “Why does that matter to me right now? Why should I make sure to carve out time for it in my day?”
Meditation works on you over time. It’s a lifelong practice, not an instant practice. You can’t just meditate a few times and expect to feel the benefits in your day-to-day life, just as I can’t expect to go for one brisk walk and have a healthy heart for the rest of my days.
My meditation practice continues to heal me and teach me. Sometimes it’s pleasurable, sometimes it’s really hard, and occasionally it’s boring – but I know it’s absolutely worth it.
(Originally written in 2018)