12 Daily Routine Hacks to Truly Make Yourself More Mindful
Stop and smell the roses: It’s a timeless and perhaps a little overused adage, yet it probably rings truer than ever with our fast-paced, screen-oriented lifestyles. We all know too well how much the passing of time seems to speed up as we age. When many days felt like an eternity as a child, most in adulthood are transient, as if the space between waking and sleeping happens in a finger snap.
As a health coach, I see how this phenomenon affects many people I work with (including me!). It can feel rare to have enough time to get everything done and enjoy ourselves while we do it. True balance every moment of every day isn’t possible, but that feeling of time slipping away from us becomes tangibly problematic when your health starts degrading due to chronically high stress.
The Neuroscience of Life ‘Speeding By’
You can take your foot off the gas pedal of life and slow down a bit with some concerted awareness. But just what causes life to feel like it’s going by faster in the first place?
Researchers have discovered that our perception of time is subjective, so much so that people at the same event can report a large variety in their perceived duration. Neuroscientist David Eaglemann, PhD, says that novelty is the primary driver of this phenomenon. Our brains tend to focus less on what we’ve already experienced before, and more on what we haven’t.
Newness triggers a larger response in our brains of dopamine, a brain chemical linked to reward and pleasure. (It’s the same chemical released during gambling and sex.) In scenarios that our brains view as out of the ordinary, we pay closer attention, and as a result, have a higher “frame rate” of detail. Interestingly enough, because our attention is taken in the moment, the real time experience tends to feel shorter, but because of the greater amount of detail, we recall the memory as much longer.
Conversely, the more boring moments in life tend to feel long as we’re experiencing them, but are recalled as very short, since there wasn’t much there for the brain to pick up and make note of. These two different types of time perception are known as prospective and retrospective time.
Kick Your Brain Off Autopilot
Knowing how your brain perceives time provides a useful explanation for how life tends to speed up as the years go by. It largely comes down to the fact that we have less to learn about how the world around us works, and more to do in the way of repetitive daily tasks. This lack of newness essentially puts the brain on autopilot.
The obvious-but-extreme way out of this programming might be to constantly move around and change the fundamentals of your life to keep things fresh, but of course, that is not a practical solution (nor one that most of us would truly want).
However, you can use more realistic tactics — and little ways to introduce novelty into your daily routine — to change your perception of time and make life feel a little less frenetic.
1. Change locations. During your workday, try working in different spots. The change of scenery will satisfy your brain’s hankering for novelty.
2. Focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking can be tempting, but truly effective multitasking does not really exist, according to research. If your phone is a big driver of this (you tend to check social media, say, while in meetings), give yourself set blocks of time away from your phone to avoid the temptation for distraction.
3. Take a complete, mindless break. Here’s a challenge: One day this week, try taking a break where you do absolutely nothing. Take a seat, lie down and rest, or go for a walk. (Keep your phone on airplane mode or as far away as possible.)
4. Engage in truly undistracted conversation. It can be easy to let your mind wander during everyday conversations. Even in transactional interactions or small talk, do your best to drop what you’re doing or thinking about and focus on the other people. Listen carefully to what they have to say, even if it’s nothing significant.
5. Do less. Embrace the power of saying no. No, you can’t make that meeting. No, you can’t volunteer at your kid’s school. No, you can’t run that errand for your partner today. Saying yes to something commits your time. Be judicious about what you say yes to to safeguard your time, your productivity, and your overall well-being.
6. Visualize a great memory. Take a few minutes to close your eyes and think about a fond memory. Explore the people, place, and things that this memory takes place in. For example, if you’re remembering a boat trip at the lake, take in the sound of loved ones there with you, the small waves gently rocking side to side, the sun hitting your skin, the smell of nature all around you. If a particular memory doesn’t come to mind, you can also do this exercise with a make-believe place. Studies have even shown that this type of visualizing or daydreaming can improve brain function.
7. Learn something new. Constant learning throughout life is one of the best ways to keep a healthy brain. Whether you’re trying a different recipe, picking up a new sport or workout activity, or reading a book genre you generally don’t, engaging with something new forces you to slow down and get into the moment.
8. Talk to a stranger. It’s not exactly a comfortable situation, but that’s exactly the point. Reaching out has a way of grounding you in the moment. Even if the conversation does not lead to a lasting connection, it really helps us to get out of your own head and usual ideas of how life works when you hear about someone else’s experiences and opinions. Chat up the person in line behind you at the grocery store or post office, or strike up a conversation with someone at work or your kid’s school who you’ve never spoken to before.
9. Rearrange furniture. This is surprisingly satisfying! Even small adjustments like putting a lamp in a different spot or changing out the pictures on the wall can create a feeling of newness for your brain.
10. Stay off screens. This probably goes without saying, but giving yourself dedicated time away from phones, tablets, and computers for even a day can have a significant “reboot” effect, since it cuts out a major source of distraction and stimulation.
11. Take a new route. Whether on the morning run, work commute, dog walk, or the trip to the store, try taking a different path when possible.
12. Jot in an evening journal. Take time before sleep to recount some of the events of your day. Don’t just talk about the big details of who and where, make note of the little ones too, focusing on what you felt through your emotions and through your senses.
Pick one or a couple of these ideas to test drive this week. We hope they help you feel more calm, in control, and ready to re-focus on the things that matter. Who says you need to actually stop and smell roses to live in the moment?
- Eagleman, D. M. (2008). Human time perception and its illusions. Current opinion in neurobiology, 18(2), 131-136.
- Buckley, R. (2014). Slow time perception can be learned. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 209.
- Madore, K. P., & Wagner, A. D. (2019, March). Multicosts of multitasking. In Cerebrum: the dana forum on brain science (Vol. 2019). Dana Foundation.
- Naidu, I., Priya, A. J., & Devi, G. (2018). The hidden benefits of daydreaming. Drug Invention Today, 10(11).
Michael Craigen is a health coach at Hinge Health. For the last 5 years, he has helped individuals navigate and overcome chronic pain through ongoing lifestyle and mindset support. A board-certified health coach since 2018, he has a master's degree in Integrative Health from the California Institute of Integral Studies.