Embracing Everyday Mindfulness: 6 Practices for a Balanced Life
According to my mother, the reason I should make my bed every morning is not for aesthetic purposes, or even to meet any kind of standard, but for a sense of achievement early in the day. I’m sure she’s not the initiator of this theory, but she’s certainly onto something. Ticking a very attainable task off your list in the first few minutes after getting out of bed sets the tone for a day of achieving. It builds momentum and powers up the army of cheerleaders in your mind. The same, I think, can be said for mindfulness.
Perhaps by dint of reading this magazine, you already have an established mindfulness practice. But if it has fallen by the wayside recently or you’ve never managed to make anything stick, a more attainable style of mindfulness might be for you.
I’ve been writing for this magazine for several years now and did a stint as the editor of WellBeing’s sister magazine WILD, so you can imagine I’ve spoken to lots of mindfulness experts, researched many a technique and edited countless articles on breathwork, meditation and enlightenment. And yet I have struggled to find a mindfulness practice that works for me, rather than finding myself a slave to a 30-minute guided meditation that leaves me more stressed out than blissed out.
That was until I discovered what I like to call “while the kettle boils mindfulness”. What I’ve learned is that it’s not the length or complexity of the exercise, but simply that you’re doing it and doing it regularly. You don’t have to fly off to a luxury silent retreat to find enlightenment; you can find it while the kettle boils.
There are plenty of ways to practise “kettle mindfulness”. I will take you through some of mine, but there are no hard and fast rules. The idea is that, with a few exercises in your toolkit, mindfulness can be something you practise on the go.
Carving out time for yourself is a lovely idea, and in many ways necessary, but if you’re already giving pockets of time to exercise and relaxation, mindfulness is something that can slot into, rather than take over, your day.
Tool #1: Take your morning meds
What’s the first thing you do in the morning? If you answered “check my phone” you’re in the vast majority of people (71 per cent according to one US-based survey by reviews.org).
Those first few minutes after waking are the most precious and potent of the day because they set the tone for the hours ahead. Hand them over to social media algorithms designed to hijack your mind and you have lost control of your day before it has even started.
Instead of reacting to emails, reading notifications or scrolling social media, try a one-minute meditation. It doesn’t sound like much, but those 60 seconds really can transform your life if practised every day. Here’s how.
Find a comfortable position in bed just after waking up. If you’ve got tiny kids like me, either leave them cooing in their crib for 60 seconds or grab them before starting — it really is just one measly minute and you can even do it with a toddler lying across your face or with cartoons blaring in the background.
Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breathing. Focus on slow, deep belly breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth) while counting. You could also do a body scan, starting from your head to your toes, or the other way around, bringing your attention to each body part one by one, feeling it against the fabric and comfort of your bed and letting any tension go in each muscle.
If your mind drifts off to the day’s demands, gently bring it back to your breath and body. Think of the mind like any other muscle, and the “bringing back” a “rep” to build that muscle. The idea isn’t to be perfect; it’s simply to be with your breath, in total relaxation for the first minute of your day.
You might find you want to do more than one minute — that’s great! But 60 seconds is all you need to reclaim sovereignty over the start of your day, relieve anxiety, boost your decision-making powers, optimise your focus, boost your energy levels and elevate your mood.
Like my mother’s theory on making your bed, you might find that one minute builds momentum. The following tools are to be practised after you have mastered your one-minute morning meditation.
Tool #2: Enjoy a mid-morning coffee in the sunshine
Whenever I want to achieve something that I don’t particularly love doing, I pair it with something I do like. I listen to my favourite podcast while cleaning the house or buy a sweet treat to help me get through a late night of deadlines.
My mid-morning mindfulness session is paired with a coffee in hand, preferably in a slice of sunshine somewhere, which makes it sound like a total treat on days I really don’t feel like dragging myself away from my computer.
This is a traditional mindfulness exercise that’s about bringing your attention to the tiny details of the present moment. You don’t need a coffee; you can do it with a cup of tea or even your lunch. Here’s how.
Get comfortable with your coffee and notice the sensations of the warm mug in your hands. Bring it to your mouth and notice the smell of the coffee beans; take a big inhale.
Have a sip, drawing your attention to the taste in your mouth and the warming sensation as you swallow. Focus on nothing but your coffee, your breath and your body. Feel the chair supporting your weight, the texture of your coffee cup, your breath becoming slower and deeper.
This shouldn’t feel too restrictive; think of it as a moment entirely for you, enjoying the taste of something you’ve made (or bought) with love. It’s simply about committing to the activity with an embodied presence, and you can practise it almost any time — while you shower, cook a meal or walk the dog.
Tool #3: Breathe deeply
This is perhaps my most used tool: I reach for it whenever I feel stressed, anxious or frazzled in any way. There are a few different techniques you can use; I will take you through a couple of my favourites.
Box breathing or four-square breathing is a type of deep, intentional breathing that involves inhaling to a count of four, holding air in your lungs for a count of four, exhaling to a count of four and holding your lungs empty for a count of four before repeating the pattern.
If this feels uncomfortable for you, take a big deep breath in through your nose and let your belly expand to make room for all that lovely oxygen. Count as you do it and make a mental note of that number. Exhale through pursed lips while counting and make a note of that number. Inhale and exhale in this pattern with your chosen counts.
If I have a bit more time or I’m feeling extra frazzled, I like to expand on the above with a couple of mindfulness techniques. On your inhale, say the word “re” in your mind, and just before you begin your exhale, notice that utter stillness in your breath. On your exhale, say (just in your head) “lax” and again, notice the stillness before inhaling again. I also like to tap my hands, alternately, on each leg as I go.
It sounds a bit like this in my head:
Inhale: “re-e-e-e-e”. Pause. Exhale: “la-ah-ah-ax”. Pause. Tap your leg for each “syllable”.
This expanded version is fantastic if you have trouble sleeping and need to pull your mind out of whatever deep rabbit hole it is burying into. You will likely find that you forget to do a component: perhaps you stop tapping or noticing the pause between each inhale and exhale. That’s totally normal
— simply bring it back or, if you prefer, choose a simplified version to drift off to.
Tool #4: Ground yourself with 5–4–3–2–1
If you experience anxiety, mental spirals or even panic attacks, this is a great exercise for you. It is another classic mindfulness exercise that you might already be familiar with.
It’s very simple: mentally name five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. The idea is that by focusing on these details, you pull yourself back into the present moment and away from catastrophising.
It is also a fantastic exercise for children due to its simplicity, and especially good for moments that lead to a tantrum or overexcitement (if you can spot the signs in time!).
Tool #5: Go on a walking meditation
You don’t need to “go for a walk” to do this exercise; it can be practised during a walk from the car park to your office door or from the bus to your local café. You only need 60 seconds, but you might find (I hope you find!) that you want to do it for longer.
Bring your attention to each step you take. Count how many steps you take during each inhale and exhale; don’t force your breathing or your steps, but try to fall into a pattern of matching your steps to your breath, focusing on what feels comfortable for your lungs. For example, as you inhale count 1–2–3 steps, and the same as you exhale.
I find this exercise particularly helpful on my way to work, when my mind can often head into overdrive, panicking about what needs to be done that day. Don’t chastise yourself for this; simply notice it and say to yourself, “Shall we do a walking meditation instead?”
Tool #6: Name your feelings
Mindfulness is all about occupying the present moment without judgement, which means accepting the state of things as they are.
This component of mindfulness can be tricky, especially when you’re going through a tricky time. Acceptance is not pretending you don’t care or a quick fix for difficult feelings; it’s about seeing things as they are and facing them compassionately.
This is a lifetime’s work and certainly can’t be achieved in 60 seconds, but I do have a very straightforward exercise that doesn’t take any time at all, which might help you on your journey to mindful acceptance.
Next time you feel an emotion, any emotion, label it in your head. As I mentioned in the previous tool, if you’re feeling stressed on the way to work, say to yourself, “I’m feeling stressed.” Likewise, it’s helpful to notice and mentally point out when you are ruminating, catastrophising or any other normal brain behaviour.
Part of the reason why this exercise can be helpful is because it creates space between you and your thoughts. You are not your thoughts and you do not control your thoughts, but you can control how you meet them. Simply noticing them can also set you up for letting them go; we cannot move past what we cannot see.
Bonus tool: Stretch before bed
This exercise requires more than 60 seconds, but no more than a few minutes. As a long-suffering, on-and-off insomniac, I’m not going to promise this will fix your sleep issues, but I will say that when paired with basic sleep hygiene rules (no screens for 30 minutes before bed, dimmed lighting, a good routine), it greatly increases the quality of sleep.
There are no real instructions here. The idea is to take a few minutes before bed to be with your body, slow your mind and stretch out the day’s niggles. My favourites stretches are these.
I like to start with a few shoulder rolls and a really basic neck stretch. Standing comfortably, gently bring your right ear towards your right shoulder until you feel the stretch. To intensify the stretch, take your right hand and wrap it over to the left side of our head. Very, very gently pull your ear further towards your shoulder. Maintain for a few seconds and then repeat on the other side.
Start on all fours, hands under shoulders, knees under hips. Round your spine like an angry cat, draw your navel to your spine and look between your knees. Then slowly bring your head up, look forward and arch your spine, sticking your bum in the air. Repeat and feel your back release all that pressure.
Kneel on the floor and sit on your feet. Open your knees and stretch forward, bringing your stomach to rest between your thighs, your forehead to the floor and your arms stretched out in front of you. Take a few deep breaths and totally relax your body.