5 Everyday Routines That Are (Secretly) Perfect for Practicing Mindfulness
Time to turn off auto-pilot and be more present. How? Give these five daily moments the mindfulness treatment.
More often than not, we end up running through our days on autopilot, juggling multiple tasks without even a second thought, letting our minds be anywhere but present. When we do this, we’re likely neglecting all of our senses—touch, smell, sight, hearing, taste, and spirit—which are crucial to absorbing each moment, explains Raghu Kiran Appasani, MD, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and the founder and CEO of The Minds Foundation.
“The mind is constantly wandering—that's what it’s meant to do, and that means it's working. But it also means we’re often stuck in the future or past, and not right here, right now, in this moment,” says Erin Margolis, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with Thrive Psychology Group in Southern California and a certified mindfulness teacher.
Bringing awareness to what we’re doing in the present (and how we’re doing it) in a purposeful and nonjudgmental way is at the heart of the practice of mindfulness. Though relatively simple in concept, Margolis notes that exercising this present, mindful awareness is not easy. But through the process of learning to recognize and focus what’s happening in your mind and environment, “mindfulness can become a way of life, a consistent way of processing thoughts and turning them into feelings we desire,” explains Melanie Shmois, a cognitive behavioral therapy expert and CEO of Mind Your Strength Coaching, LLC.
The practice of mindfulness—not to be confused with meditation (though there is overlap; meditation is an intentional and structured practice that allows one to achieve mindfulness)—is by no means new. In fact, present-day mindfulness technique takes its cues from the Four Foundations of Mindfulness from Buddhist tradition: mindfulness of the body, feeling, mind, and the interplay of physical and mental processes.
In recent years, mindfulness has had a resurgence—and with good reason. The practice is linked to a myriad of mental and physical benefits, including the reduction in stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and substance use. It’s also shown to help increase focus, cognitive function, attention, and memory.
The best part? Mindfulness isn't as heavy of a lift as you might think. It doesn’t need to require an immense amount of time, a dedicated space, or specialized equipment. In fact, you’ve likely already engaged in some form of mindfulness in your day-to-day life without realizing it. Keeping a journal, taking a few deep breaths to center yourself, concentrating on balancing through a yoga pose or stretch—it all counts. “If you're observing and bringing awareness to anything in a way that allows you to experience it fully, you've already got a jumpstart on building more mindfulness into your life,” Margolis says.
Here are a few attainable ways to turn everyday tasks and routines into moments of mindfulness.
Typically, when going through the motions of cleaning our pearly whites, we’re doing anything but concentrating on the actual act of brushing. But this (often tedious) daily routine is an opportune moment to sneak in some mental time—especially considering that American Dental Association guidelines advise you to brush for two minutes, twice a day.
Use mindful awareness to notice every small step involved in this grooming ritual, from how you reach for the toothbrush to the sensations of each movement of your hand, says Elizabeth Ohito, LCSW, a psychotherapist and meditator in California. Immerse yourself in your senses—notice what your toothpaste tastes like, how it feels on your teeth and tongue (minty, tingly, foaming?), and the sound the bristles make as you brush, suggests Rebecca Kudgus, CLC, an Arlington, Va.–based life coach focused on mindfulness and conscious living, and the owner of Becca K. Coaching.
Take your cue from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, often referred to as the father of mindfulness. Hanh, who has written books on mindful walking, has been reported as saying he teaches walking slowly and deliberately with each step. Margolis agrees with this method, emphasizing that it’s helpful to bring awareness to the soles of your feet and the pressure points where your feet make contact with the ground. She suggests noticing: “Do your feet make a sound against the surface they’re on? Do they have a certain temperature? What other sensations are there?” Also noteworthy: Research shows that moving (specifically walking) and mindfulness together help alleviate stress and anxiety.
We have to get out of the habit of multitasking, says Jon Aaron, a teacher at the New York Insight Meditation Center and a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher. One good way to practice is while enjoying your morning coffee (or tea, or whatever you like sip on). Aaron challenges us to simplify this already familiar act by limiting distractions.
“When you sit down for your morning coffee, just drink the coffee—don’t read, listen to music, or look at your digital device,” he says. “Just sit. Know that you are sitting and know that you are drinking coffee and be curious about the activity.”
Ohito also offers tangible cues for achieving a mindful morning ritual, since tuning out distractions cold turkey is not easy. “Turn mindfulness toward the sensory experiences of making coffee,” she says. “Notice the texture of the bean and the cup, the smell of the coffee grounds, the temperature of the coffee, your eagerness to drink it,” she says. “Coffee or tea routines are a great opportunity to notice physical and emotional sensations.”
Without analysis or self-judgment, what do you notice? Where are your thoughts and emotions while you sit with your cup? What do you taste, feel, and smell? These conscious observations will ground you in the present and help you start each day with intention (without a huge lifestyle overhaul or training course).
In a similar vein, mealtimes are another ideal part of the day to practice mindfulness. Ohito says mindfulness allows us to slow down long enough to help savor the experience of eating (think: taste, smells, and sounds). It’s also a great time to reflect on all of the people and processes that brought this meal to your table—from the farm workers to the truck drivers to the person who stocked the ingredients you used to prepare what you're eating at the grocery store. Take a mindful minute of reflection and gratitude to “appreciate their contributions to the meal you’re eating,” she says.
What’s more, eating with awareness of yourself and the food in front of you—in other words, being mindful of what and how you eat—can lead to overall healthy eating habits that last, says Linda Nikolakopoulos, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist in Massachusetts. She notes that this practice is about listening to your body. “Mindful eating helps us recognize if we’re eating due to hunger, emotions, stress, or boredom,” she says. “It also points out if we’re mindlessly snacking while doing other things such as working, cleaning, or watching TV, which can help us recognize when we’ve eaten enough instead of realizing it after we’ve already gone overboard.” Research backs up the theory, suggesting that mindfulness can indeed help thwart unhealthy eating as a coping method.
Mindfulness in the shower? Absolutely. Shower or bath time is kind of the perfect place to rinse away distractions as thoughts bubble to the surface—at least for Shmois, who uses the precious alone time to get in touch with her thoughts and five senses. “I make sure to give myself enough time [to shower] so I am not rushed,” she says, “I try to be fully present and immersed in the experience of washing my body.”
She takes note of everything while washing: the sensation of water hitting her skin, the temperature, and the smell of her body wash and shampoo. “I have found that gratitude is a nice byproduct of this,” she adds. “I find myself being so grateful for the fresh clean water that comes so easily out of my shower head.”
Shmois says applying small mindfulness techniques in the shower like this helps her set the tone for a nice, calm day, every day.