Making morning meditation my “keystone habit” is transforming my days

Do you have a keystone habit, one that sparks “chain reactions that help other good habits take hold,” as Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit? You know, like how regular exercise makes you want to eat less junk food?

A keystone is the wedge-shaped stone at the top of an arch, like those in the Roman Colosseum. It’s the final piece placed during construction and locks the other stones into position, allowing the arch to bear weight.

My keystone habit is, you guessed it, mindfulness meditation.

I often feel like I’m behind and need to catch up. Behind who or what? I don’t know.

This story—that I need to hustle or something bad might happen—appears first thing when I wake up in the morning. It tells me that I need to get to work on something, anything, right now. Only recently have I learned to channel the worry it causes me into a healthy morning routine.

The first thing in that routine after making my bed and a little half-assed stretching? Meditation.

Before I look at my phone, before I talk to anyone, before I eat breakfast or start working, I sit and listen—to my mind, to the silence, to what’s going on my body, to the birds and cars outside. I slow down and get out of my head. I release the tension in my shoulders, face, and ab muscles. I notice my mind thinking, let the thoughts go, and open to the present moment, over and over again.

I used to carry a sense of unfinished business with me all day long—and I still do if I wait to meditate later in the day. I had trouble truly resting. I was rarely present with others, almost always leaning toward the future to get to the next thing on my to-do list.

During my last semester of college, I even had three jobs. Most days, I’d go to classes near Washington, D.C., drive an hour into Maryland for a shift at a public library, and then head to Northern Virginia where I’d work through the night at a hotel front desk. On weekends, I’d edit documents for a tech company and play shows with my band.

At times, I thought I was living the American Dream, taking pride in my work ethic and plotting my future. But mostly, I felt like I was on autopilot, chasing some future moment when all the hard effort would end and I’d be showered with praise and attention.

It took me a long time (and lots of therapy and meditation) to realize that moment will never come. I’ve also noticed my chronic restlessness has a tragic twist: it makes me procrastinate.

While one part of me is saying, do, do, do, another part just wants to scroll through Instagram or binge watch Succession. That hustling part of me then judges the part of me that wants to chill. My mind is scattered and I end up doing nothing but worry about all the work I should be doing.

But after meditating, I’m not all that interested in Instagram. Social media seems superficial, an approximation of life. I’d rather grab a book or write or go for a run or enjoy making breakfast. I’d rather live, which is starting to mean just being myself and doing all the things I really want to do.

Sometimes I want to chill, and that’s fine too.

Sure, meditation hasn’t solved all my problems. I still have trouble taking breaks and being present with others.

But attending to the present moment over and over again—which is what mindfulness boils down to—creates a wider, deeper sense of awareness, in which my thoughts about hustling and constantly working seem uninteresting and, even, boring.

In fact, not all thoughts are useful—neuroscientific research has revealed most to be repetitive and negative.

Why not have a little more say in whether I keep working into the night if I don’t technically have to? Why not embrace the moment for what’s actually happening rather than what I think should be happening?

In other words, meditation creates a seed of an inner freedom that has all kinds of downstream benefits during the rest of my day. It’s the keystone that locks everything else I do in place, allowing me to bear the weight of just being myself.

Free meditation cheat sheet

I’ve come up with a cheat sheet to help you start and stick with a regular meditation practice. Get it for free here.

Listen to my podcast Meditation for the 99%

On Meditation for the 99%, I take meditation out of faraway monasteries, expensive retreat centers, and Corporate America, and bring it to work, relationships, and, especially, politics. Listen everywhere podcasts are available.